Is sugar the bad guy or is it fat? Including fat in our diets has been demonised for so long but why?
Fat has been labeled as an enemy for half a century now while the ever-growing presence of sugar in many of the food products has been largely ignored.
It all stems back to a scientific study conducted in the 1960s by an American physiologist, Ancel Keys. He had a theory that consuming saturated fat was a major cause of heart disease.
This theory was in contrast to Dr. John Yudkin, a British physiologist and nutritionist. He firmly believed sugar was to blame for high cholesterol and heart disease, not fat.
The recent discovery of internal sugar industry documents found that the data from the study was misrepresented to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease. These documents show the researchers were asked to promote results that painted fat as the culprit instead.
The study was funded by John Hickson, a top sugar industry executive. He wanted to shift the focus away from sugar as a likely cause of heart disease. The scientists skewed the data, only including countries in their findings that supported their hypothesis.
These documents have revealed the deception of the sugar industry who deliberately manipulated the study for their own gain.
Here’s some more reading on the study.
Outdated Dietary Guidelines
The results of this study formed the foundation of dietary guidelines. Implemented by governments all over the world with the United States taking the lead.
Food industries responded to these recommendations by removing the fat from many of their products. This marked the introduction of low-fat and fat-free varieties.
These dietary guidelines, including the Healthy Food Pyramid, are still used by governments today.
In the 80’s, low-fat became an overarching ideology, promoted by physicians, governments, the food industry, and the media.
For decades we have consumed low-fat foods thinking that we were doing the right thing. Believing that fat was the enemy all while the added sugars in our food have slowly but surely done more harm than good.
The result is an astounding increase in metabolic disease and obesity, directly correlating to the increased consumption of processed foods.
The issue with painting fat as the bad guy is that we have been conditioned to think that all fat is bad for us but that’s simply not true.
If we were to completely remove fat from our diets we would be depriving our bodies of the necessary healthy fats that we use for energy and other bodily functions.
Removing fat from food also means we’re removing flavour and that’s where sugar comes into play. When fat is removed, sugar is added to give the food the flavour it’s lacking.
The Sweet Danger of Sugar
All digestible carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars in the body. They are absorbed into the blood in the form of glucose, raising the blood glucose levels. This increases the production of insulin and within about 2 hours, the insulin stores excess sugar as fat around the body.
Once the sugar is stored, the sugar levels in the blood fall to a low level and you start feeling hungry and craving something sweet. You seek out food containing sugar that your body doesn’t need, you eat it and the whole process starts again. A vicious cycle leading to weight gain.
You can stop this cycle by cutting down on your carb intake. Your blood glucose will be lower and a lot more stable resulting in your body producing less insulin.
When you don’t eat carbs, your body will search for an alternate source of energy – your fat stores. Fat is released and fat burning increases, helping you to lose body fat, especially from around the belly.
Sugar is more harmful than we have been led to believe:
- Sugar is a carbohydrate found in most processed foods. It was once a treat for our ancient ancestors, rarely available, now it’s being used in most food products as a way to add flavour.
- We find it hard to switch off from sugar and that’s because it’s highly addictive. Once you have sugar, your body craves more.
- There is no nutrition in sugar, it only provides energy, in other words, calories. Sugar also increases your appetite, making you want to eat more.
- Sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose, the fructose is the problem. Consumption of fructose increases kilojoules and raises insulin levels which can lead to insulin resistance. This has major negative effects on your metabolic health. Insulin resistance not only makes it easier to gain weight but also increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
- Sugar is pro-inflammatory and may increase muscle and joint inflammation.
Benefits of cutting down on sugar
After hearing about how negative sugar can be, cutting down on your sugar intake is almost a no-brainer. But if you still need a little more convincing, here’s a list of benefits of reducing your sugar intake.
Sugar contains no nutrients, only calories.
Swapping processed, sugary meals for ones full of whole foods, high in proteins, healthy fats, and fibre, you’ll start to notice the difference in your waistline. When you eliminate added sugars, your body will start to burn fat for energy instead, this helps you keep your weight in check.
Help cut cravings:
Sugar is highly addictive, it leaves you craving for more. Your body has no ‘off switch’ to tell you when you’ve had enough.
You might find yourself craving sugar after a stressful experience since eating sugar is almost a compulsive reaction to “feel better”, but in reality, it only does more damage than good.
Sugary foods are notorious for providing you with a “sugar rush” that your brain translates as high energy. This temporary boost of energy doesn’t last long, ending in hard “sugar crashes”. This crash will completely deplete you of whatever energy you had and leave you feeling lethargic and sluggish.
Eliminating sugar from your diet will help maintain steady energy levels, so you won’t have any temporary highs that then end with a crash a few hours later.
Lift your mood and clear your mind:
With the high and lows caused by sugar, you’ll find that sugar may be the culprit for your mood swings. Too much sugar only leads to greater mood imbalances, stress, poor eating habits, and feelings of tiredness.
Instead of sugar, opt for brain foods such as nuts, blueberries, and sugarless green tea. Less sugar means blood sugar levels stay even throughout the day, aiding concentration and focus.
Clearer skin and less inflammation:
Added sugars influence insulin production which in turn can cause an increase in oil production and acne appearance.
Sugar sucks all the water out of your cells, dehydrating your skin and leading to puffiness and under-eye circles.
Sugar is a major cause of inflammation in the body. Inflammation often leads to chronic pain, headaches, and food allergies.
Including exercise in your daily routine and increasing your water intake can reduce inflammation problems and reduce chronic body pains.
Your digestive tract will thank you for cutting down on sugar. Sugar doesn’t digest efficiently since it can’t be broken down into nutrients other than simple glucose. When you have trouble digesting sugars, your body will react, causing you to feel bloated.
Better overall health:
If you are gaining weight because of sugar, you could risk having high blood pressure as well. A sugary diet makes your liver pump out extra low-density lipoproteins (LDL) also known as “bad” cholesterol. It also reduces your high-density lipoproteins (HDL) which is your “good” cholesterol.
Sugar that doesn’t get used as energy converts into fatty acids that become triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides increase your risk of developing heart diseases and strokes.
Just cutting out sugar from your diet may just help protect you from cardiovascular problems later in life.
Why is Fat Better?
So, sugar is bad for your health, but that doesn’t make fat good, right? Well, the answer is yes, fat is a whole lot better than sugar.
Unlike sugar, fat does not have an immediate effect on blood glucose levels. This is why low carbohydrate, high fat diets have better results when it comes to managing blood glucose levels.
When talking about fats though, it’s important to note we are referring to healthy fats which are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
These fats are unsaturated. A fat molecule with one double bond, is called a monounsaturated fat. With more than one, it’s called a polyunsaturated fat. These fats are found in foods such as nuts, seeds, avocadoes, olive oil, and salmon.
Trans fats are the worst type of fat. They are notoriously unhealthy, but you may not know why.
Trans fats are made using a process called hydrogenation. Found in processed foods, they are chemically altered to stay stable at room temperature. This gives food a much longer shelf life.
Seed oils also contain trans fats. Mass-produced oils include vegetable oil, soy, canola, corn, cotton, and palm oils. You can read more on vegetable oils here.
Fats that you need to avoid:
- Processed Trans Fats – Avoid processed food like frozen pizza and microwave popcorn, fast food like fries, burgers and fried chicken. Also, margarine, salad dressings, mayonnaise and commercially baked goods including cakes, biscuits, muffins and bread.
- Processed Polyunsaturated Fats – Avoid vegetable and seed oils such as canola, corn, soyabean, sunflower, peanut, rapeseed (canola) oil.
The good fats are the healthy fats. These are the fats that we need to pay more attention to.
Why? Fats are the most energy-dense of the 6 major nutrients, the others being Carbohydrates, Proteins, Vitamins, Minerals and Water. Fat also provides essential fatty acids for the body, providing building blocks for our cells. You can read more on the Six Essential Nutrients here.
Fats you need to get more of:
- Saturated Fats found in eggs, cream, coconut oil, butter and ghee
- Fats found in meat from grass-fed animals and dairy products
- Monounsaturated Fats are found in avocados, almonds, cashews, olive oil, macadamia nut oil.
- Natural Polyunsaturated Fats (specifically Omega-3) found in fish, fish oil, flaxseed and chia seeds.
- Foods high in Omega-6 such as nuts, legumes and seeds. Even though they are good for you they should be consumed in small quantities.
Your body doesn’t have the enzymes to produce Omega-3 and Omega-6, that’s why you must get them from your diet. If you don’t have enough you may develop a deficiency, it’s why they’ve been termed as ‘’essential” fatty acids. Even though they have similar names, they’re quite different, omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory.
A diet high in Omega-6 but low in Omega-3 increases inflammation, but that doesn’t mean you need to start avoiding foods with Omega-6 which are still healthy for you.
Try to maintain a healthy ratio of both. With the Western diet, we eat way too much omega-6s relative to omega-3s at a ratio of 16:1. The optimal ratio to eat at ranges from 1:1 to 1:4.
Sugar is a lot worse for your health than you’ve been led to believe. You know now that you need to avoid processed foods which are high in added sugars and saturated fats.
Opt for real, fresh, whole food and home-cooked meals, where you know what’s going into your food. This allows you to make sure you’re only eating what’s healthy for you.
A little tip for picking food that’s healthy for you: don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as real food.