For more than 60 years now, we have been told to limit our fat intake or – better still – to avoid it altogether, because not only does fat make you fat, it also causes heart disease. It turns out though, that obesity rates have gone up ever since. Is that because still nobody is listening to nutrition advice? Not at all! People did listen: We now eat a lot less fat than we used to, especially of the saturated kind. The shops are full of low-fat products, we’re buying lean meat – preferably poultry –, skimmed milk and skinny lattes. And yet, heart disease is still one of the two leading causes of death in the UK alongside cancer.
Is it then because people are not taking their cholesterol medication? They are. It’s just that there is no relation between cholesterol levels and heart disease. If you are interested to learn more about this, you could start with this brilliant article by nutritionist and researcher Zoe Harcombe.
Fat has been thoroughly vindicated. It does not cause heart disease, it does not even make us fat, or at least not to the extent that we’ve been told. Yes, fat does have more than double the calories of carbohydrates – even sugar – and protein. However, a calorie is not a calorie, it’s not that simple. Also, fat is an essential component of our diet. Every single cell in our body is held together by a cell membrane that consists of fat, cholesterol and protein. The brain consists almost completely of fat and cholesterol. Fat is a carrier for important nutrients, such as the vitamins A and E. Vitamin D is made in our skin - from cholesterol. Fat and cholesterol are the building blocks of many hormones. Fat keeps your skin and hair supple and your joints moving. We need fat in our diet. It has a purpose, a job to do in your body. It’s not until those needs are met - or if the fats that are coming in are the wrong kinds of fat – that fat will be stored as fat.
What we don’t need in our diet at all is sugar. Sugar contributes to heart disease and obesity much more than fat does. Sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrate and while our cells use glucose (a type of sugar) for energy, we do not need to eat sugar to secure our supply of glucose. The body converts carbohydrates into glucose during digestion. So, a nice slice of wholemeal bread, some beans, a bowl of porridge, or even the carbohydrates from green vegetables, will supply all the energy our body needs. Eating actual sugar is not a requirement.
Thousands – or even just hundreds – of years ago sugar was also hard to come by. The only sugar there was was that from fruit, roots and honey (and of course sugar cane, if you lived in a tropical environment). Fruit and roots were seasonal, not always available, and honey first had to be found. Fat, on the other hand, was always consumed, coming from meat – animals were eaten almost completely! -, oily fish, eggs, nuts and seeds. We have a taste for sugar in order to encourage us to find it for energy. But how many apples can you eat in one sitting? One? Two? Yet, a 250 ml glass of apple juice contains approx. six apples and 25 g of sugar – which is exactly the same as the same amount of cola.
Today, sugar is everywhere. There are the obvious sources: fizzy drinks, juices, jam, chocolate, sweets, cakes, and biscuits. Then the less obvious ones: bread, salad dressing, fruit yoghurt, ketchup, mayonnaise, brown sauce, baked beans, chilli sauce, peanut butter, breakfast cereals, flavoured milk and water, and especially low-fat products. If you take away the fat, you’re taking away flavour, and sugar is used in order to make low-fat foods palatable. Note also, that in the process of digestion, white rice, white bread, white pasta turn into sugar very quickly and then have the same effects. The way these carbohydrates have been processed means that some that part of the work normally done by your digestive system’s job has already been done, and they are fast broken down into glucose .
This omnipresence of sugar in almost everything we consume means that we are eating vastly more sugar than we are designed to tolerate. We should not eat more than 30 g = 7 teaspoons of sugar a day, children need to eat less. It’s very easy to eat more than that. A lot more. Many of us consume 20, 30 or 40 teaspoons a day without even realising it. The brilliant documentary “That Sugar Film”, which was released on DVD in the UK at the end of July, shows how easy it is to over-consume sugar through ‘healthy’ foods alone. Dried fruit? Full of sugar. Agave syrup? Almost pure fructose, which is even worse than glucose. Yoghurt, fruit juice, cereals …
But is sugar really so bad for us? Yes, is the short answer. If you watched Jamie Oliver’s documentary “Sugar Rush” last week, you’ll have learned that every day, small children have a number of teeth (not just one!) extracted under general anaesthetic as a result of sugar consumption, mainly through fizzy drinks. You’ll know, that children are now diagnosed with diabetes II, a disease that is entirely lifestyle related and was once something people got in old age. You’ll also have learned that each year in the UK, there are 7,000 amputations due to diabetes. That’s 130 every week.
Apart from ruining our teeth and giving us diabetes, sugar makes us fat and tired. It affects our hormone levels, promotes inflammation – and thus heart disease – as well as cancer, sugar is addictive, and fructose in particular overloads the liver and can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
For more on sugar: Jamie Oliver's documentary "Sugar Rush" will be on All Four for another 25 days. I also recommend Dr Robert Lustig’s TEDx Talk “The Elephant in the Kitchen” or if you have more time than 22 minutes his 90-minute-talk “Sugar: The Bitter Truth”.
If you would like to reduce your sugar intake, but don't know where to start, why not join one of my zest4life Programmes in Leigh-on-Sea. If you prefer 1:1 attention, you could book a 12-week zest4life Programme with me and see me in clinic at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.