Fact or Fiction: Which is Worse, Fat or Sugar?

Fact or Fiction: Which is Worse, Fat or Sugar?

People who seek to eat a healthy, balanced diet today are faced with conflicting research and the strong pull of charismatic diet trends. Many people want to know:

Which is worse, fat or sugar?

If you look at the broad swath of dieting trends between the 1950’s and today, the methods of losing weight range from the insane, temporary cleanses (eating nothing but maple syrup or cabbage soup, for example) to the scientifically-informed, long-term elimination of either fat or sugar.

Whether you’re cheering for fat or for carbohydrates could be largely determined by what fad diet was in the headlines at the time that you came of age:

  • Weight Watchers, which was developed in the 1960’s and continues to flourish today, emphasized not only creating a calorie deficit through portion control, but also encouraging women to form healthier habits and depend on group support for lifestyle transformation. In my opinion, Weight Watchers, while not perfect by any means, can be one of the “healthiest” dieting perspectives, due to its relative lack of “bad foods” and its focus on behavior change.
  • The Scarsdale Diet, like Weight Watchers, influenced 1970’s dieters in terms of creating a calorie deficit. However, the Scarsdale diet created an extreme calorie restriction (often limiting intake to an unsustainable 1,000 calories a day).
  • Jenny Craig dominated the 1980’s with portion control and high fiber options. Its success was due largely in part to its pre-prepared, pre-portioned meals that reduced choice more than it eliminated specific food groups. We face at least 200 food choices a day, and Jenny Craig helped to simplify decision-making in favor of smaller portions and balanced meals.
  • The low-calorie Zone Diet, which promoted a long-term lifestyle, was the reasonable 1990’s alternative to short-term, extreme cleanses that garnered headlines from Hollywood. The 90’s also began to include men in dietary marketing strategy, and began to focus on heart disease and diabetes as much as figure. However, the 90’s also had the misfortune to popularize the “Heroin Chic” appearance characterized by extreme thinness.
  • During the early 2000’s, the Atkins and South Beach Diets struggled for supremacy with opposite approaches. While the Atkins Diet vilified sugar and encouraged a high-fat diet, the South Beach Diet, made a comeback from its quiet 1980’s origins and eliminated high-fat foods. Both diets argued their cases both from weight-loss and health perspectives.
  • Now (2010-2015), men and women are equally under the sway of the Paleo Diet, which claims to champion an early-human outlook on food intake. It eliminates most carbohydrates, sugars, and dairy in favor of meat, nuts, and certain vegetables. It more closely resembles the Atkins diet than any other diet trend, and tends to pair with high-intensity exercise such as CrossFit. For women, “strong is the new skinny” is the cultural trademark of the Paleo diet and the intersection of femininity with heavy weightlifting.

Although it seems that diet research changes at lightning speed, recent studies have suggested that the Paleo diet may be onto something.

In fact, sugar, whether in the form of added sugar or carbohydrates, may be the culprit for more than just diabetes. It seems that frequent blood sugar spikes, not fat, cause inflammation and atherosclerosis (plaque on inner walls of arteries, often responsible for heart disease and strokes).

It may sound counterintuitive, but these studies disconnect dietary fat and cholesterol (meat, full-fat dairy, and egg yolks) from plaque in the arteries.

Why could a high-fat diet help you maintain a healthy weight? Why is fat so magical that millions of people have embraced the Paleo diet or something close to it?

The bottom line about fat is that a diet with sufficient fat is more satisfying, physically and mentally. You don’t feel deprived, and your brain receives signals of satiety from foods that are rich in dietary fat. Instead of holding onto body fat because of triggering a starvation cue (a reason that many diets don’t work), your body feels abundant and satisfied, and does not store additional adipose fat.

Also, some nutrients from vegetables, such as lycopene and beta-carotene, which are extremely beneficial for overall health, are only absorbed efficiently in the presence of dietary fat, such as olive oil or avocados.

Furthermore, when sugar is not delivered through a high-fiber source, such as fruit or whole grains (really whole grains, not flours or refined products made of whole grains), it causes blood sugar spikes that affect arterial plaque, energy, hunger, and mood.

However, fat is not problem-free. Here are some cautionary words about embracing fat into your diet and maintaining a healthy weight, metabolism, and heart:

  • Helpful fats, even saturated fat, should come from plant-based sources (olive oil, avocados, nuts, etc.) or simple meat sources (fish, chicken, and even beef). Avoid fat that is disguised in a swirl of added sugar or carbohydrates, such as milkshakes, candy, processed snacks, and pastries. Ironically, if you avoid sugar and increase your conscious fat intake through meat, dairy, and vegetables, you will probably consume less fat than you did before. It will just be the “right” kind of fat to help you stay fit and healthy. In other words, following a “high-fat, low-carbohydrate” diet will actually shift you into a moderate way of eating, not necessarily “high” or “low.”
  • Read labels to avoid trans fats, which are far worse for your heart than saturated fats.
  • Avoid foods that are combinations of fat, sugar, and salt. This combination triggers an addictive eating reaction.
  • You still need to eat lots and lots of vegetables. The point of a low-carbohydrate and high-fat diet is to avoid blood sugar spikes, not to eat as much cheese and meat as possible. Your diet should still be mostly plant-based, so that you get sufficient fiber and nutrients. Many long-term studies have pointed to the reduction of animal products as an important contributor to lifelong health.
  • Exercise is a crucial complement to a satisfying and healthy diet. Moderate exercise helps to maintain digestion, regulate mood, and exercise your cardiovascular system.
  • Portion control is still an important part of a balanced way of eating, even if you reduce carbohydrates and increase healthy fats. You don’t necessarily need to count calories, but you need to make sure that each meal is balanced and that you follow a loose but structured eating schedule that keeps you on an even keel throughout the day.
  • As you focus on incorporating healthy fats, you also need to explore where sugar sneaks into your diet, spiking your glucose levels and tanking your mood. Many of us drink our sugar, whether in sweetened coffees, soft drinks, or alcohol. These are perhaps the emptiest calories you can take in. Switch to water, herbal teas, and plainer coffees.

And finally, a few disclaimers about dieting in general:

  • Fad dieting is a uniquely American – and recent – pastime. Dieting becomes an issue when there is a surplus of accessible, rich foods. Most food decisions in other cultures are motivated by religious or traditional choices.
  • Also, let’s agree that obesity is a marker of poor health, not a cause of poor health (although it can contribute to many biomechanical issues such as knee, back, and hip problems).
  • Although I frequently used the word “diet” in this post, I truly believe in avoiding “diets” and sticking to a “healthy lifestyle” that is manageable, sustainable, and long-term. There are no “good” or “bad” foods, and no foods are morally wrong.
  • Finally, it is important to acknowledge that genetics play a significant role in how much and where people store fat.