Sugar & Fat; Which is More Evil?
Navigating the firehose of information on nutrition from the internets is overwhelming to say the least, even arresting at times.
When it comes to hardcore opinions about nutrients, it is as easy to find arguments on both sides of any argument, leaving those of us who are not nutrition experts confused, frustrated, and dismissive of all advice. It’s a wonder anyone can maintain a semblance of dietary health.
The question stuck in most of our heads is which is the true culprit of evil in our modern diets? Is is fat? Is it sugar? Which one is making us fat? Or how about this one... is body fat really such a concern?
Let's break down the truths about fat and sugar, but also talk about how you can live healthier without concerning yourself over which is the real enemy.
When Time Magazine, 33 years ago, headlined on their front page, “Cholesterol: And Now the Bad News,” the world stopped eating eggs, bacon, butter and anything containing saturated fats.
The research we had at the time cited that saturated fats were behind rising cholesterol levels, and ultimately heart disease. It’s been a few years since they retracted that famous front page headline with the news, “Eat Butter; Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.”
If you didn’t fall out of your chair that day, you weren’t paying attention.
Since 2014, the proliferation of bacon in pop culture runneth over. We’ve witnessed chocolate covered bacon, bacon-weaving like baskets over turkeys and other meats, and a veritable landslide of bacony goodness that no-one contested… because, darn it, bacon is yummy.
Add to that, alternative "nutrition experts" have pushed the conversation from unhealthy to good-for-you. My favorite is the bulletproof coffee plan of adding butter to one’s morning coffee.
Dave Asprey, a former Silicon Valley geek, and owner of the Bulletproof brand, who claims to have saved his own life by studying food and devising a diet revolution, continues to function as a guru to impressionable dieters everywhere.
Bulletproofers shove butter into coffee every morning, often not even the coveted MCT brand sold by Asprey, completely missing the point of his plan, only adding calories to their intake.
In the dietary story, we’ve gone from fat is deadly to fat (especially the saturated kind) is gonna save your soul.
Through it all, fat remains the same nine calories per gram (versus the four in carbohydrates and the four in proteins) that fat has always carried. The only thing that has changed is that saturated fats, as one type of fat, may not be as bad for our hearts as we once thought.
Humans need fat in their diets, so cutting them out 100 percent is not wise. Sugar on the other hand, you can live without...
When Doctor Atkins branded his Atkins diet in the 1970s, he went after carbohydrates as the source of our growing obesity.
Atkins diet encouraged dieters to eat proteins, even those with saturated fats at a time when they were still the enemy. He was the original rebel.
Sugar, which is a simple carbohydrate, wasn’t yet singled out on the naughty list, but Atkins diet set sugar up for its eventual demise. For Atkins, it was under the same category as other carbs, like pasta and bread.
Following his logic, cut out those things (bread and pasta) and you lose most of one’s sugar intake as well. You also lose a huge chunk of one’s calorie intake, as bread taste so much better with fats and oils.
As it turns out, we like cinnamon rolls as much for the sugar coating as we do the butter and oils saturating the bread.
Fast forward through time to the re-branded attack on carbs and you get an anti-sugar message, which is the same of attack as Atkins'. If one cuts out sugar, that person loses weight because of all the fats which often come with sugary foods.
It is this pairing of sugar and fat that makes cutting out either a good short term plan for weight loss, the reason both of these approaches can work. Followers wind up cutting out the same calorie sources.
In short, sugar is not evil. It's not killing us, not by itself, but you'd be wise to cut your sugar intake way down.
This whole debate comes back to one thing: goals. If you follow the Vitals blogs on Medshop, you’ve read countless arguments about setting goals that matter. Read Fat Loss is Lame; Set These 4 Goals Instead.
For the uninitiated, this is the short version. Body fat is stored fuel. Modern anthropologists believe body fat is what allowed us to outlive our smarter cousins, purebred neanderthals (we cross-bred with them a little).
When famine struck, back before the days of supermarkets, our breed of humans (homosapiens) survived because we stored fuel in the form of fat. We only dropped a few pounds. We could say that famine was the first weight loss diet.
All body fat is not deadly. We have good reason to believe that some can be harmful. Intra-abdominal fat, the murky fat wrapped around your organs, may cause heart disease, and increase your chances for type 2 diabetes, but living without six-pack abs isn’t a death sentence.
Just because you are not beach-ready (you are, you just think you aren’t) doesn’t mean you should organize your last will and testament.
Rather than run after chasing every gram of fat from your body, focus on living a healthier life, eating better (next section of the blog). Then, when you’ve got that mastered, if you want to adjust your intake to lose a few pounds of fat, you can do the right way.
In case you’ve missed it, cutting sugar and fat may help, but if you’re eating better, you won’t need to.
What you can do to sort through this mess is seek out unprocessed food as often as possible, consume a wide variety of whole nutrients.
That means you buy fresh or quick-frozen produce. Try not to cook it or add too much. The closer it is too raw, the more nutrient values your food will retain.
This is where most dietitians tend to agree. None of them will tell you that too many raw vegetables are bad for you. Veggies are where we get our micronutrients, but also our fibers.
No dietitian will say you should eat a muffin instead of a banana. Both bring on the sugar, but that banana is fructose, not sucrose, which is what we call table sugar.
Fructose in your blood does not tend to stimulate pancreatic insulin production. The banana packages its sugar with fiber, tempering your digestion of it. Most importantly, bananas are not soaked in butter, so they are way less calories.
Even of those dieticians who question eating legumes (beans), they’d rather you ate beans with your meal than processed food. The closer your food is to farm-fresh, the more your body will take good stuff from said food.
This plan won’t make you into a supermodel, but it may help you manage unwanted body fat (whatever your motivation to lose it). What it will do, however, is clean up your intake, balance your fibers with your sugars, and broaden your nutrient profile.
Changing from a diet built on processed food can seem daunting, but you don’t have to become a chef to do this. A salad is cut vegetables and protein. Lightly sautéing veggies is simple too, but eating them raw is even easier.
You also don't have to make these changes overnight.
Start with one day or one meal if you have to. Add another meal or day the following week. Keep building until you get to five or six days without processed foods.
Then, when duty calls, like a social event where the host is serving the most amazing cake in the world, you can enjoy it knowing you live a mostly healthy life.
Damon Mitchell is a recovering fitness industry fancy-pants, with twenty plus years of experience. He’s been certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise. These days he works as a content creator.