There has been a lot of negative publicity for sugar over the last few months, or years in fact. It didn’t help matters that a study was published last month indicating that the sugar industry had funded research years ago to swing the blame for heart disease away from sugar and onto saturated fat. So does that mean that fat is good?
If we look at this logically, why would only one nutrient be to blame for disease? Is it really as simple as sugar is bad and therefore fat is good? And did we not know all along that excess added sugar in our diet is not good for us (we should all know that we should eat foods high in added sugar such as cakes and chocolates only occasionally and in small quantities)?
So let’s break these two nutrients down and look at what comes out the best/worst.
All carbohydrates convert into sugar in our bodies, which is why it has been suggested with some diets to cut carbohydrates completely out of our diet. However, how can we put the entire carbohydrate group, which consist of fruit, yoghurt, milk, legumes (beans and lentils), starchy vegetables, starches, breads, crackers, cereals and treats all under one label of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. How can we compare legumes (which are nutrient dense foods that are naturally low in fat, high in protein, and a source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and dietary fibre) to sweets (which are high in calories and sugar and contain no extra nutrients)?
Our bodies have evolved to digest carbohydrates and utilise the energy efficiently. What our body’s physiology struggles with is an excess of carbohydrates, and especially if they are provided in a refined form that digests too quickly. This leads to uncontrolled blood sugar levels and plays havoc with the hunger and satiety signals.
Bottom line: Choose the unrefined, high fibre carbohydrates and eat them in small portions with your meals and snacks.
Fats can basically be divided into plant (unsaturated), animal (saturated) and processed. Plant fats such as nuts, seeds, olives and avocados are very healthy and should be added to all meals and snacks. However, there is enough literature available that shows that fats from meat, processed meat and fast food are associated with an increased rate of heart disease. Some animal fats, particularly those from seafood and game do have health benefits.
Our bodies need fat, so low fat diets are not necessarily the best for our bodies. We’ve also seen many studies using the Mediterranean style of eating (where about 40% of the diet comes from fat, mostly from plant sources) being health friendly.
Bottom line: Choose plant fats over animal fats and incorporate fatty fish into your diet regularly. Remember that it is not about having a low fat diet, but rather about having a low saturated and processed fat diet.
Conclusion (or bottom, bottom line)
A healthy diet is not high in added sugar OR saturated fat. To get back to health we need to get back to basics. We need to move away from the debate of sugar versus fat and rather eat a diet that is low in processed foods and contains more unprocessed vegetables, fruit, bean, lentils, nuts and seeds. As Michael Pollen says it: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.