In this post, I want to talk about the two most hated nutrients out there: Sugar vs fat.
Are they really that bad and which of the two is worse?
Dietary fat used to be the main villain when it came to obesity. For decades people believed it to be the most important driver for fat gain and the underlying culprit for all kinds of nasty diseases.
In recent years things have changed. Nowadays you will often hear the media proclaiming that fat is fine and sugar is the new enemy. The other day I read a headline saying “Sugar is the new smoking”. Apparently, it causes heart attacks and sometimes even cancer.
So, what’s the deal?
Is it true that sugar is really that bad? Or should we avoid fat after all? And which of the two is worse?
Before we get into that, let’s talk about the difference between sugar and fat.
What is sugar?
All sugars are carbohydrates, which is the macronutrient our body preferably uses for energy. There are different types of carbohydrates, but you can categorize them by how many sugar molecules they are comprised of.
The most basic form are monosaccharides, which are sometimes called simple sugars. They consist of only one sugar unit and cannot be further broken down into simpler sugars.
Examples are glucose, fructose in fruits or galactose in milk. Monosaccharides are generally digested faster and more easily than other carbohydrates because they don’t have to be further broken down.
When monosaccharides are linked together in longer chains you get polysaccharides (poly stands for many). Starch, which is the energy store of plants, is a good example. Digesting these foods takes a bit longer, because your body has to break down the longer chains into usable glucose.
When people talk about bad sugar they usually mean added sugars or your average table sugar. Such sugars are usually disaccharides (two sugar units), half fructose and half glucose.
What they might not tell you is that no matter what type of carbohydrate you eat, your body will always break it down into glucose, which is the only way it can use it as energy.
In fact, the body doesn’t distinguish between the natural sugar found in rice, fruit or milk, and the added sugar in a candy bar. They’re all ultimately turned into glucose.
So, does that mean eating rice is the same as eating a candy bar?
Of course not!
Even though their sugar molecules might be the same, how everything is packaged also matters. For example, brown rice not only has more complex sugars than candy, it also comes with more fiber. Both slow down digestion and keep you full for longer. Another benefit is the high amount of vitamins and minerals.
Candy bars, on the other hand, are highly processed and have basically no fiber, are low in nutrients and high in simple sugars. This means a candy bar will be digested more rapidly, make you less full and also provide a bunch of empty calories. This, of course, makes it a lot easier to overeat on candy than on brown rice.
This means you have to make an important distinction. Sugar isn’t unhealthy per se and it’s basically impossible to avoid it, because all types of carbohydrates are essentially sugar. Processed sugar is not more fattening than natural sugar, but since it tends to be added to candy or junk food, you tend to get empty calories that increase your energy intake without doing anything for your health.
Researchers at the University of Hawaii actually put it best when they concluded:
“It is important to state at the outset that there is no direct connection between added sugar intake and obesity unless excessive consumption of sugar-containing beverages and foods leads to energy imbalance and the resultant weight gain.”
As you can see, it’s not the added sugar that is to blame, but the weight gain it tends to cause in many people. And, of course, we know that obesity is linked to all kinds of negative consequences.
What about fat?
Like sugar, fat is often misunderstood. Dietary fats are actually an important part of your diet and besides protein one of the essential macronutrients. That means your body needs some fatty acids to survive and cannot produce them from other foods.
You also need fat to regulate hormone production and absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, the so-called fat-soluble vitamins.
But why then are so many people afraid of it?
There are two main reasons for this. First, fat is more energy dense than carbs and protein, meaning at 9 calories per gram you get more than double the calories per gram than in the two other macronutrients.
Next, many people believe that when you eat fat you automatically get fat because your body’s store for dietary fat is its fat cells. Of course, that’s only half the truth.
As I explain in my post on the science behind weight gain, overeating is always the driving factor behind it. Unless you provide your body with more energy (in the form of calories) than it regularly burns, you will not gain weight, no matter what you eat.
For many people, this explanation seems too simplistic and they think there must be something else involved. And, while it is true that your hormones and metabolism always play a big role in all weight gain, what you eat is a lot less important.
That said, all fat is not equal and it’s definitely better to build your diet around whole foods high in unsaturated fats and healthy saturated fats instead of junk food packed with trans fats. But even cutting out all trans fats from your diet will not make you lose weight unless you also create a calorie deficit.
Therefore blaming fat for the obesity epidemic, just like in the case of sugar, misses the point. Unless you are talking about trans fats, it’s not the fat itself that makes people overweight and unhealthy.
It’s the crappy standard diet, which is too high in overall calories while being low in important nutrients. High-sugar and high-fat foods are just a symptom of that because they taste so good so food companies market them to us.
If you once fell for the low sugar or low fat craze, I hope this post convinced you to think again. If you want to improve your diet, the most important step is learning about nutrition and prioritizing your diet by the most important principles.
Everything you need to get started can be found in my meal planning course, but there are also many other great resources online.