Why sugar is not the new fat (but could be the new tobacco)

Is sugar the new fat? shrieked  The Daily Mail last year, usually the first newspaper to find a new health scare to terrify us. And since the New Year, the topic of sugar, the amount we consume, and its health effects, has become an almost permanent fixture on the airwaves. There certainly seems to be a paradigm shift taking place: after years of being asked to believe that saturated fat causes heart disease, we’re now being told sugar is the real culprit.  Here are a few of those news stories picked at random:

sugar-infographic1

Sugar in the news

  • January 9:  A new international pressure group, called Action on Sugar, led by medical doctors and academics, calls for food manufacturers to reduce by a third the amount of sugar they add to food. They say that ‘sugar is the new tobacco’.
  • January 21: Channel 4 airs a Despatches investigation called ‘Are you addicted to sugar’ and highlights links between the sugar industry and government health advisers.
  • February 4: CNN reports on a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which suggested that sugar is an independent risk factor not just for heart disease but for many other chronic diseases.
  • February 27: Michelle Obama proposes new rules for labelling food, which draw attention to the sugar rather than the fat content.
  • March 5: WHO publishes new draft guidelines advising that we reduce the amount of sugar we consume to under 10 grams a day (about 6 teaspoons).

Dissenting voices

Yet there have always been dissenting voices suggesting that sugar rather than fat is the real danger in our diet, including Professor John Yudkin (Pure, White and Deadly: how sugar is killing us and what we can do to stop it, published in 1972) and Dr Atkins and his low-carb diet, but they were marginalised and out-argued by the anti-fat brigade.

In the mid-1970s in the USA and the mid-1980s in the UK, the dietary-fat-causes-heart disease theory (never proved) embedded itself in the public consciousness, a message eagerly reinforced by food producers and supermarkets.  The industry did not deliberately set out to fuel an epidemic of obesity and diabetes –  but of course, its priority is profit, not our health. If producing food that is good for us was easy and profitable for the food industry, the last few decades would have looked very different.

Low-fat theory aids the food industry

But timing, politics and technology coincided to ensure that the foods approved of by health experts (low-fat, starchy) were the easiest and most profitable for the industry to produce. And because these foods generally taste awful in their unadorned state, they can be made palatable – and addictive – by loading them with sugar and salt.

Over the same period, rates of obesity and diabetes soared (see graph). And while deaths from heart disease have certainly declined, thanks to better emergency medicine and after-care, the numbers of people developing heart disease continues to rise.

Rise in obesity rates across the globe since 1970

Line graph for global obesity rates since 1970

Rates of obesity in various countries around the world, including the USA and the UK, since 1970. Note how the USA rate takes off in the mid-1970s. The rise in the UK started in the mid-1980s but systematic data was only collected from 1990.


Why sugar should not be seen as ‘the new fat’

I welcome the fact that sugar, which has on the whole been ignored as a heart health risk, is now getting more attention. But it should not be treated as the new fat for two reasons:

1.   Fat, including saturated fat, is a major macro-nutrient (food group) and an essential  part of the human diet. Saturated fat in particular has been unfairly vilified. We are beginning to realise that we made a huge mistake in cutting it back in our diets, replacing it with highly processed ‘vegetable’ oils – which we now know are toxic – and large amounts of processed starch.  Saturated fats such as butter are now slowly (but surely I hope) being rehabilitated.

Sugar, however, is not just another macro-nutrient which is taking its turn at being a punchbag. It provides no nutrients, is actively harmful and has absolutely no part to play in a healthy diet.

So it could easily qualify as the new tobacco. Sugar is unlikely to be banned if government nutritional advisors like Professor Ian Macdonald have their way. But just as smokers must be aware of the consequences, let’s not kid ourselves that a high-sugar product like a caramel frappucino (18 teaspoons of sugar) is simply a harmless indulgence.

2. Focusing on individual components of the diet is probably what got us into our current dietary mess in the first place. Dr James DiNicolantonio, a cardiologist writing in the British Medical Journal, calls on public health to run a  campaign admitting that saturated fat has been wrongly demonised, leading to catastrophic health consequences.

Let’s eat real food, not ‘macronutrients and food groups’

I agree with DiNicolantonio – let’s eat real food instead, put together in the proportions that nature intended. 

One good reason is that there seems to be increasing evidence for the theory that saturated fat is only a problem if it is eaten alongside refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta, cereal, sugar). This combination never appears in nature, only in processed foods. When a food has naturally occurring fat (red meat, oily fish, butter, eggs, olive oil, nuts) you will find very little or no sugar. Conversely, foods that contain relatively high amounts of natural sugar such as fruit have virtually no fat. The only exception is coconut, which combines both fat and sugar – and even then the amount of sugar is only about 3%.

So it’s better to trust a food that is recognisable as something that was pulled out of the ground, picked from a tree or bush, or taken from an animal. If you can avoid food in packets and tins, so much the better.  Beware of ‘foods’ which have more than five ingredients listed on the label, especially if they sound like an explosion in a chemistry lab – like the product below .

benecol-ingredients2 

 Next time, I will look in more detail at what happens when we eat foods where refined sugars are combined with saturated fat.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/13/in-food-cravings-sugar-trumps-fat/

 

http://experiencelife.com/article/sugar-not-fat-increases-risk-of-heart-disease-death-new-study-finds/   feb 14