Health: What’s worse, fat or sugar?

It has always been recognised that too much sugar is bad  for you but experts say its increased levels in foods are playing havoc with how insulin works. Picture: Robert Perry

It has always been recognised that too much sugar is bad for you but experts say its increased levels in foods are playing havoc with how insulin works. Picture: Robert Perry

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FAT makes you fat. That’s the mantra we’ve all swallowed along with our low-fat spreads and reduced fat baked beans for the last few decades. If you want to lose weight, to beat the battle of the bulge, then a low-fat diet is what you should be aiming for to keep the calorie count down. Forget about butter, cream and full-fat milk – that’s what is defeating you on the scales.

Sugar on the other hand, well that just gives us energy. Yes we may know too much isn’t particularly good for us – it rots teeth for one thing, as legions of dentists have warned through the years – but a little of what you fancy? Well it does you good, doesn’t it?

These twin health edicts, carved in stone by much of the diet industry, are being turned on their heads as new battlelines in the war against obesity are being drawn up.

Scotland faces an obesity time bomb. In fact, obesity is believed to contribute to the deaths of four people every week – being mentioned on the death certificates of 212 people in 2011. Government figures suggest that two-thirds of men and more than half of women in Scotland are overweight – with 1.4 per cent of men and 3.5 per cent of women so overweight that they are classed as morbidly obese.

Figures for children aged between two and 15 showed that more than a third of boys and a quarter of girls weighed too much.

Yet, in adults, most people have probably tried to combat their weight gain through changing diets. Supermarkets with their confused guides to calories and recommended daily allowances on their products have been partly blamed, so they are now reducing the fats in their foods even further. Critics, however, say that will do no good as fat is replaced with sugar to make the foods palatable.

So what is at fault? Fat or sugar?

Fat is often fingered as the culprit and at nine calories per gram, any type of fat packs more than twice the calories of carbohydrate, sugar and protein.

Yet doctors now believe it’s a mistake to equate dietary fat with body fat. You can get fat eating carbs and protein, even if you eat little dietary fat. What’s more, some believe the rush to a low-fat society has increased sugar levels so much that it’s affected how insulin works in our bodies – causing a diabetes epidemic and other major health problems.

Nutrition expert and author Dr John Briffa believes that low-fat, calorie-controlled dieting makes losing weight – and keeping it off – near impossible. The idea, he says, that it’s total calorie intake that matters, not where the calories come from, is a false one and that different types of food have different potential to make us fat because of their impact on hormones such as insulin.

Edinburgh food writer and journalist Joanna Blythman has said that while foods can be low-cal they offer poor nutritional value. “Seen through the calorie lens, popcorn and bagels, for instance, can be mistaken for health foods – eggs, dairy and meat, despite being naturally rich in life-sustaining macro and micronutrients, can look like dietary demons,” she says.

“However, the finger of blame for obesity increasingly points not at whole foods containing natural fats, but at processed foods laden with refined carbohydrates and sugar, which rapidly turn into body fat.”

Hannah Sutter, author of Big Fat Lie and chief executive and founder of the Natural Ketosis Company in Edinburgh, agrees with Blythman. “I got into all of this ten years ago when I was a lawyer and read about interesting clinical trials in the Lancet and other journals looking at how the body reacts to sugars when it’s also metabolising fats.

“Basically they were saying that if you ate a lot of saturated fat such as found in whole milk, cream, butter and animal meat and few carbohydrates – such as sugars and starches – you weren’t getting any of those health problems which we had all accepted were related to eating fats.

“However, a lot of fats and a lot of carbs makes the body react in a completely different way and so you do get the bad health results – the cholesterol levels rising, the effect on the heart.

“But what it comes down to if you read the studies is that it’s all about insulin – the hormone that regulates the metabolic impact and raises cholesterol levels and thickens the arteries. And problems with insulin come, not from eating fats, but carbohydrates like sugar.”

Yet the organisation Sugar Nutrition UK – which is funded by sugar businesses – claims that the evidence that it’s sugar, not fat, which leads to heart health issues has not been proven, and cites a review of studies published earlier this year.

“Recent dietary guidelines for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease have proposed reducing saturated fat with ­replacement by other caloric nutrients, ­including carbohydrates.

“However, the nature of this replacement carbohydrate has been questioned, with suggestions that refined carbohydrate, which includes sucrose [table sugar], may not be beneficial in terms of cardiovascular risk. This systematic review of studies found that in normal healthy people, risk factors for heart disease were not adversely affected when starchy foods were replaced with an equal amount of energy from sucrose.”

The organisation also states: “No foods should be considered as ‘good or bad’ as all foods play an important role in the diet. It is only when foods are eaten in excess that health problems result.

“What you eat has an important impact on how you cope with daily activities. By choosing a carbohydrate-rich diet you will notice that you are able to keep going for longer and are less tired afterwards.”

Sutter disagrees. “The bio-chemistry all shows that it is a diet high in carbs which causes health problems. Our bodies have always needed natural amino acids from proteins and fatty acids from fats and vitamin and minerals from both of those as well as leafy green vegetables to function – they’ve never needed ‘essential carbs’.

“Of course we’ve always eaten fruit and honey but in very small quantities, and only when they were around and in season. Our bodies weren’t built to consume vast amounts of fruit, yet people munch on grapes thinking that’s a good thing to do.

“I have never understood, once you read the science and know what the body needs, why anyone thinks carbs are more important than fats to human existence. If I was asked whether bread or butter was better for you, I’d say eat the butter.”

BREAKING THEM DOWN

THERE are three types of fat in our food.

SATURATED: found in the likes of butter and chocolate. Most people eat too much.

UNSATURATED: can help lower bad cholesterol levels. Found in oily fish and nuts.

TRANS FATS: there are natural trans fats (in meat and dairy) but the artificial ones are of concern. These are found in processed foods, such as biscuits. Too much leads to high ­cholesterol.

We all know what sugar is – it’s white, sometimes brown, and sits in a bowl. But it’s not that simple, there are others we, perhaps, unwittingly, eat.

GLUCOSE: a ­naturally occurring sugar glucose (also called dextrose) is found in most plants and it’s the “blood sugar” doctors look for in tests for diabetes.

FRUCTOSE: a fruit sugar found in plants. It’s a simple ­carbohydrate the body absorbs directly into the bloodstream during digestion.

LACTOSE: the sugar found naturally in milk – but the more fat taken from milk, the more lactose is in it. While lactose is not added directly to many foods, there are exceptions, for ­example infant ­formula milk.