It’s the debate of the ages – should we be shunning sugar and feeding ourselves with healthy fats or should fat be off the menu once and for all? Diana Clarke investigates which of these demonised foods is the worst health horror.
Dietary demons are a big issue for women. Constantly bickering with sugars and feuding with fats, our love/hate affair with the less laudable food groups make for a roller coaster relationship with food. Despite sugar and fat being two of the most demonised words in any woman’s vocabulary, we are so often tempted to ignore our better instincts and indulge in chocolate and cheese-induced comfort, which then leads to those extra kilos sneaking up on us.
A quick-fix for our dietary vices is offered by way of myriad fad diets, ones illustrated with miraculous body transformations that would tempt even the strictest of anti-dieters to read the magic formula promising to take you from flab to fab. We’ve all heard about the astonishing results of the Atkins and the Dukan, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. In an attempt to simplify weight loss, these meal plans tend to target either fat or sugar as the prime suspect of weight gain, and encourage us to exterminate one or the other from our lives. The fad diets are divided in opinion, with one half promising that by eliminating fats from our diet, we can get trim tums in mere weeks, and the other half suggesting that we need to ditch the carbs for cheese grater abs.
And so in a knockout round between the two least likeable yet most lusted after food groups, we discover which is the biggest blow to your health.
Until recently, fat was considered Public Enemy Number One. The misunderstood food group was paraded as the reason for all of our wobbly woes, and pinned as the main contributor to clogged arteries and heart disease. Capitalising on this new fear of fats, competitors in the food industry began to extend their product lines to accommodate products boasting the labels ‘light’ and ‘fat-free’. But the companies found that by removing fats, the flavour of their foods was taking a hit too, resulting in bland burgers and plain pizzas. So they began to fill the void left by extracted fats with extra carbs, resulting in products that might be ‘lite’, but are even more figure-unfriendly than the original.
Jessica Campbell of Body Balance Nutrition in Auckland says we need to stop shuddering at the word. While there are a few fats that give the food group its bad reputation, there are countless good fats too.
Trans fats are the worst of the group. These processed fats are man-made through hydrogenation, a process of heating vegetable oil and using hydrogen to change the structure of the substance, solidifying the oil and increasing the shelf life and flavour stability of the foods. The process raises LDL (low-density lipoprotein), otherwise known as bad cholesterol that often leads to heart failure, and simultaneously lowers HDL, or good cholesterol. Avoid these fats found in highly processed, packaged goods, as well as deep fried and baked foods.
Saturated fats, on the other hand, are often unfairly criminalised. While they have been proven to raise LDL levels, saturated fats also raise good cholesterol, which is critical to your health. Found in animal products such as fatty meats as well as cream, butter and cheese, saturated fats should be part of your diet, but make up just 5 per cent of your daily caloric intake.
Then there are the hero fats. Both monounsaturated fats, found in extra-virgin olive oil, almonds and avocados, and polyunsaturated fats, derived from walnuts, fish, cabbage and tofu, are easy to burn and have proven health benefits. Catalysts for lowering cholesterol levels, decreasing the risk of heart disease, and deemed to be waistline-friendly, feel free to make friends with these two fat factions – your body will thank you.
When we think about sugar, we tend to think of the refined white sugar we add to our tea in the morning. What we overlook, however, is the toast we have alongside, with over three-times the sugar content.
First, let’s get to grips with the saccharide (sugar) family of which carbohydrates are a part. These are macromolecules, meaning they are large and multifaceted, comprised of a mixture of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon atoms. Sugars can then be further divided into monosaccharides, disaccharides and polysaccharides. Monosaccharides are the smallest sugar building blocks and are easily broken down and digested. These types include glucose and fructose, which combine to produce the disaccharide sucrose, or table sugar. Similarly, monosaccharides galactose and glucose combine to produce lactose, or milk sugar. The likes of starch, glycogen, amylose and inulin are polysaccharides and are digested more slowly.
Carbohydrates help to stabilise blood sugar, fuel our brains and provide the fibre we need for a healthy digestive system, says Campbell. They are also our main energy source, but if our carb intake exceeds our energy output, the liver stores the excess glucose into fat cells instead of using it for energy, and they become that dreaded spare tyre.
Like fats, there are good carbs and bad carbs. Simple carbohydrates are easy to digest and offer little nutritional value. The sugars found in fruits and vegetables are simple, but that doesn’t mean you can stop eating your greens, since the fibre in these health foods slows down our digestion of the basic sugars, and essentially turns them into complex carbohydrates. The simple carbs to keep an eye on are table sugar, cakes, artificial syrups, white rice and bread. Minimise these in your diet.
The general rule states that carbs should make up around 50 per cent of a healthy diet, but those carbs should be the right ones. Complex carbohydrates are healthy starches, including wholegrain breads, brown rice and pasta, which contain complex slow-releasing sugars. These keep us full and energised for longer, and are more likely to be expended as energy throughout the day than stored around your middle.
The reality is that neither fat nor sugar is the problem. Both food groups should exist in a healthy diet. It might seem easier to blame the nutritional no-nos but in truth our weight gain and health issues come from our daily food choices. So if it’s all in our minds, why can’t we stick to our intentions? The answer is processed food. Scientists have found that when man-made trans-fats and refined sugars are used in combination as they are in processed foods, they are highly addictive. Studies on laboratory rats have seen radical behaviour change and weight gain in animals on processed diets versus little or no change in those on high-fat or high-sugar diets. Human bodies and brains react in a similar way to processed foods, because they are unfamiliar to our regulatory systems. The added chemicals override our natural hormones that monitor nutritional intake and fail to tell the brain when we have consumed enough calories, leading to addiction, poor health and tight jeans.
The battle between sugar and fat is a moot point. It is the way that foods are processed, and the way we eat them, that is leading to the global weight gain and increase in heart-related disease. Cutting an entire food group from your diet, like sugar or fat, is neither nutritiously beneficial, nor maintainable over the long term. Your best bet, when it comes to your health, is to eschew processed food and eat foods in their organic form, with as few additives as possible, to minimise temptation and keep your diet balanced and healthy.
From the editors of Simply You Body & Beauty.