Sugar vs. Fat: The Rundown
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
We live in a society that likes to put things into boxes. We like to categorize and slap a label onto things to help us make sense of our crazy world. When it comes to food, a variety of labels are used to categorize the things that we eat - spicy, salty, sweet, sour or bitter are common descriptors we assign to a food’s taste. We also tend to think of different foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us.
With the obesity epidemic in North America spreading like wildfire, we often feel the need to single out specific foods or ingredients as being to blame. Over the past 30 years, fat and sugar have been the subject of much debate and commonly labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’. To make matters worse, the majority of the foods we’d consider comfort foods are loaded with either, or both.
Can all of our health woes be blamed on one ingredient or macronutrient? Can sugar or fat be labeled as inherently bad or good? Is one better, or a lesser ‘evil’, than the other? Do we really have an understanding of what each of these names really refer to?
To help unravel these questions, let’s look at the basics. Or, if you want to get straight to my 5 key takeaways for the healthy consumption of fats and sugars, scroll to the bottom of this post.
Fat is a class of macronutrient, along with proteins and carbohydrates
Main form of energy storage in the body, and helps to insulate and protect our organs
Two main types: Saturated or unsaturated
Dietary fats help facilitate the absorption fat-soluble nutrients - Vitamins A, D, E and K
Fats are an essential building block of our cell membranes and of the fatty coating that insulates our nerve cells and enhances nerve transmission (myelin sheath)
The brain is comprised of 60% fat!
Essential fatty acids are a critical part of our diet, as the body cannot synthesize these fats themselves
Do not cause a spike blood sugar when consumed.
Contain more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein
‘Simple sugars’ refer to the carbohydrate monomers glucose, fructose and galactose, which combine to create disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and more complex polysaccharides.
Glucose, a simple sugar, is the body's principle source of energy
“Refined sugar”, such as white table sugar, has been extracted and processed from sources such as sugar cane or sugar beets
Glucose circulating in our blood is referred to as “blood sugar”, and is the main source of fuel for our muscles and brain.
Excess glucose in the body is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles to be used in low-energy states. Once glycogen stores are full, excess glucose is converted into body fat by the liver.
“Natural sugars” typically refer to monosaccharides and disaccharides present in whole fruits, such as glucose, fructose and sucrose, which are found alongside fiber, water and other nutrients.
As we can see, both sugars and fats play important roles in our body. They each have their own unique functions and at face value, neither is inherently 'good' nor 'bad'.
Natural sugars complexed with fiber, such as that found in fruits, are a healthy source of energy for the body. The trouble with sugar comes when our diet is high in refined carbohydrates, which cause the body’s blood sugar levels to spike and crash throughout the day. Blood sugar crashes contribute to fatigue, brain fog, moodiness and food cravings (particularly for carbohydrates). An intake that exceeds the body’s ability to burn that glucose for fuel also leads to fat accumulation, and subsequent weight gain.
Trouble also comes from chronically elevated insulin levels. Insulin is required for the uptake of glucose into our cells for energy. However, when insulin levels are chronically elevated due to a high intake of refined carbohydrates, it can become inflammatory. Chronically high insulin levels can also contribute to conditions such as insulin resistance, where our cells become desensitized to the high levels of insulin in the body, and blood sugar levels remain high. Insulin resistance contributes to the development of Type II Diabetes and precedes conditions such as metabolic disorder.
One thing is certain - refined sugars have found their way in nearly all processed foods, and they have had a detrimental effect on our nation's health.
The situation with fats is also complex. Fats are more calorically dense (9 calories/g compared to 4 calories/g for carbohydrates and proteins) and similar to sugar, the quality, quantity and source of the fat plays a large role in determining how it impacts our overall health.
A healthy ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in the body contribute a great deal to our overall health. The modern Western diet has resulted in a disproportionately high level of omega 6 fatty acids, largely from the consumption of corn oil and vegetable oil. When not balanced with sufficient levels of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids in the diet, problems can arise.
Similarly, saturated fats have a place in our diet. Saturated fats found in foods such as nuts, avocado and coconut oil contain important compounds such as omega 3 fatty acids and lauric acid, which has an anti-microbial effect in the body. Organic butter from grass-fed cattle contains important fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamins A, D, E and K. However, saturated fats from poor sources pack the same caloric punch without the good-for-you nutrients that healthier sources would provide.
Unsaturated fats from good sources, such as avocado oil or olive oil, also have many health-boosting properties. However, poor sources of unsaturated fats such as fry oils, which often also contain trans fats, can be pro-inflammatory in the body. And of course, overconsumption of even the healthiest fats can contribute to weight gain.
So, where does this leave us? Clearly, it’s not as simple as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but how can we take this information and apply it to make better choices in our daily life?
I’ve compiled 5 key takeaways for the healthy consumption of fats and sugars:
Consume sugar in the form of whole fruits, vegetables and whole grains
Avoid refined sugars and processed foods, and keep an eye out for clever names assigned to refined sugars to make them sound healthier or more ‘natural’, such as brown rice syrup, cane sugar, etc. (see more comprehensive list of sugar's sneaky aliases here).
Choose whole grains over refined carbohydrates
Choose water or herbal teas over sugary drinks such as soda and fruit juices, which cause a spike in blood sugar and a subsequent crash.
Avoid fried foods and include moderate amounts of healthy fats in your diet, such as those found in whole foods (avocados, nuts, seeds), good quality polyunsaturated oils (avocado oil, sesame oil, etc.) and good-quality saturated fats (coconut oil, organic grass-fed butter, etc.).
Note: Pay attention to the smoke point of polyunsaturated oils used for cooking! For high-heat cooking, opt for oils with a high smoke point such as avocado oil or more stable saturated fats, such as butter or coconut oil. Olive oils are best reserved for dressings, drizzling over foods or low-heat cooking.