Sugar vs. Fat: Which One’s the Main Culprit?

Remember back in the 1980’s when low-fat diets were all the rage, leading to an explosion in low-fat products ranging from low-fat ice creams and cookies to low-fat peanut butter? This food trend had corporate food manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon and removing fat from their foods and ensuring consumers knew about it in their product labeling. One issue that food manufacturers failed to consider when following this route was that without the flavor that fats provide, something else had to be added: sugar.

With the ever-increasing rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes in contemporary society over the last few decades, the debate as to the root of this problem has often ping-ponged between sugar and fat. So sugar vs. fat, who’s the culprit? This debate is more nuanced than laying blame at the door of one or the other, as we’ll explore.

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Which one is worse, sugar or fat?

Nowadays, diet trends seem to lean more toward a high-fat, low-carb direction, with sugar and carbohydrates vilified and hypothesized to be the root cause of all disease.

No carbs, no fat, so what’s left? On closer inspection, the case at hand isn’t that black and white because not all foods low in fat or carbohydrates are detrimental to our health. In fact, it’s essential to eat the right balance of both (as well as protein) in your daily diet. The more pressing issue is how both fat and sugar are processed.

Refined sugars

Refined sugars and carbohydrates are isolated from their main primary nutritional source, which means they lack essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients your body needs as well as leading to large spikes and drastic dips in blood sugar levels. This kind of blood sugar rollercoaster can lead to intense cravings, weight gain and, in more severe cases, type 2 diabetes. Imagine a stalk of sugarcane and think how long you would have to chew it to taste a bit of sweetness, versus drinking a soda with ten teaspoons of added sugar. It can be easy to consume too much sugar too quickly without realizing.

Sugar withdrawal

Sugar addiction and dependency is quite real. The more you have, the more you need. Nicole Avena, at Princeton University, found that when animals get sugar, they’ll over eat and develop a tolerance to it. Meaning they need more and more to feel good. The removal of sugar from their diet produced withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and the shakes.

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Foods high in fat

Whether it is the Atkins diet or the latest trend of ketogenic diets flooding the health and fitness landscape, eating a high-fat diet without regard to the type of fats, can land you in hot water down the line healthwise. It’s crucial to be mindful of what kinds of fats you incorporate into your diet.

When you take a closer look at, you’ll notice high-fat foods often promoted also include highly processed meats, such as bacon or sausage. These kinds of meats are usually packed with preservatives as well as containing high levels of salt, nitrates, and sugar. Research has underscored that such processed meats tend to cause inflammation in the body and increase the risk of certain types of cancers.

Is fat your friend or foe?

There’s a vast difference between heavily processed fats and fats that originate from good quality food sources. When animals consume foods they are genetically predisposed to eat and live in clean, healthy living conditions, they will naturally be leaner and have higher amounts of healthy omega-3 fatty acids in their system. The same goes for eggs and dairy products. So whenever possible, going organic will serve your health well.

The same thinking applies when it comes to plant-based oils. Focus on natural and minimally processed options as much as feasible. It’s easier to ingest excess calories from olive oil than when eating whole olives. Oils have many benefits, so enjoy them in moderation. Aim for unrefined oils as refined and heat treated variants contain damaged fats that are covered up with deodorizers and coloring. Many food manufacturers use high amounts of saturated palm oil or hydrogenated fats in their products, associated with cardiovascular disease and inflammation.

Recent studies have debunked that myth that saturated fat intake is directly associated with cardiovascular disease. For optimal health, it’s important to take a holistic approach and look at your overall diet. Including high-quality carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables twinned with an active lifestyle will serve your health and well-being well.

Sugar + fat = double trouble

Highly palatable foods have a high concentration of specific ingredients that make your brain and mood light up like a Christmas tree. However, you will pay a price as these tasty treats can often hard-wire cravings. Preferring these types of foods was necessary for early human beings, encouraging them to seek out and eat nutritious yet sugar-rich foods like ripe fruit. However, today’s food manufacturers exploit this genetic predisposition by intentionally adding extra sugar, fat, or salt to products in order to trigger the reward circuitry in our brains, which means we want and need more each time.

Most appetizing foods contain sugar, fat, and salt. The combination of these ingredients increases your “bliss point,” which is the precise combination of sugar, fat, and salt that makes a food hyper-palatable. One explanation for this is that highly palatable or refined foods overload the brain with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The food industry thrives and takes advantage of this; that’s why it’s not your fault when succumbing to eating an entire bag of chips, a tub of ice cream, or a box of cookies.

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Focus on fresh and unprocessed foods

The more you deprive your body of vitamins and minerals, e.g. when eating processed foods that lack variety, the more cravings you’ll experience. Nutrient-deficient foods such as highly processed candy and chips will leave your body feeling unsatisfied. Fresh fruits and vegetables lower the levels of ghrelin — the hunger hormone — in the stomach, whereas junk foods increase it.

Let food work for, rather than against you.

At 8fit, we believe that the key to health is focusing on balanced, varied foods that are and minimally processed. Download the app today for 700+ healthy recipes.