Health and Wellness

Senators can only snack on candy and milk in Chamber — here's how it could affect decision-making skills

US Senator and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) greets photographers as he returns from a dinner a break in the Senate impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol on January 23, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

There's been much talk about the Senate Chamber's strict rules only allowing sparkling or still water and milk (thanks to the 1966 Milk While Speaking" rule), and disallowing food, with an off the books exception for the chamber's "candy desk," currently filled with Rolos, 3 Musketeers, Milky Way bars and Peanut Chews.

But with marathon impeachment sessions — Tuesday's proceedings took over 12 hours with a 30-minute dinner break, adjourning at 1:50 a.m. — what does working such long hours sustained mostly by sugar do to the ability to focus and make decisions?

"The candy desk actually a very important part of keeping senators awake during these long hours of testimony," former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who handled the candy drawer during President Clinton's impeachment in 1999, told NPR on Tuesday. "Having a little energy boost as you're sitting there at the desk is sometimes a good thing."

It is true that having some fuel to ward off hunger pangs is important, especially in situations when you need to think clearly and focus, but a sugar rush is probably not the best choice for peak performance.

Hunger affects decision-making in a variety of ways, Benjamin T. Vincent, psychology professor at the University of Dundee, tells CNBC Make It. For example, when you're hungry you tend to become preoccupied by thoughts of food taking your mind away from "other task-relevant matters," he says. Hunger also just puts you in a bad mood: A 2018 study found that feelings of hunger amplify negative feelings happening around you.

From a nutrition perspective, the snacks and beverages available to senators may not cut it. "If you're subsisting on a temporary diet of milk or candy, you can certainly get by, but it's not ideal for maintaining steady blood sugars," Carol Guizar, a registered dietitian in New York City, tells CNBC Make It.

Fluctuations in blood sugar can mess with your mood and energy level. If you haven't eaten in a while, and your blood sugar levels are low, it can make you feel tired, shaky or anxious, according to the Mayo Clinic. A 2016 meta-analysis found that low blood sugar levels " increase the tendency to make more intuitive rather than deliberate decisions." On the other hand, eating a lot of sugary foods at once can cause headaches and fatigue as a result of the spike.

A one-cup serving of whole milk contains 11.5 grams of carbohydrates and 12 grams of sugar. A "fun size" 3 Musketeers bar, on the other hand, contains 30 grams of sugar and 34 grams of carbs. "Something with more protein or fiber would help to offset the blood-sugar spikes caused by consuming carbs and sugar," Guizar adds.

Not to mention, not everyone can tolerate milk very well, Guizar explains. "So, you may have uncomfortable bloating, gas, or diarrhea if you're consuming it in large amounts, which would make anyone's mood dour," she says. "The candy can further exacerbate any gastrointestinal distress."

According to The Hill, senators have found ways around these rules: some were spotted snacking in the cloakroom, where the drinks are located. And several senators were spotted taking unsanctioned 15-minute breaks, the New York Times reported Thursday.

The "Milk While Speaking" rule was instated in 1966 after Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois requested a tall glass of milk for his lunch, explaining that "water becomes pretty thin after a period of time," according to the Senate procedure rules for debate.

The candy desk, located in a drawer on the back row of the Republican side, has been around since Sen. George Murphy of California started the practice in 1965, according to the U.S. Senate's website.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania currently keeps the candy drawer stocked (hence all the chocolates made in Pennsylvania).

"The responsibility of holding the candy desk is one that Sen. Toomey doesn't take lightly," Steve Kelly, communications director for Sen. Toomey, told NPR on Tuesday.

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