Fat has been demonised since the 1970s when the US made hasty recommendations that people should reduce their fat intake. Cardiovascular deaths were rising – something had to be done.
Supermarkets and food companies jumped on board offering low and reduced fat products. A few decades later, we are now more overweight than ever, with type 2 diabetes on the rise and cardiovascular disease remaining the number one killer worldwide.
The problem with these recommendations, was the lack of any solid supporting evidence. The recommendations were a desperate, well-meaning experiment that failed, but in its failure, more questions were asked. What had people been doing instead?
If you reduce fat intake, a compensation for calories inevitably occurs. Following the recommendations, people generally increased their intake of high-carbohydrate foods believing these foods were healthy just because they were low-fat. The food industry replaced fat with sugar.
There were now large amounts of hidden sugars in food products that were marketed as healthy; low-fat but still fattening. By the end of the century a health paradigm shift occurred where champions of the low-fat diet started to say fat can be our friend if we aim to eat more mono-saturated and polyunsaturated fat.
Sugar is not just the white granules (sucrose) we put in our tea. We also get sugar from the diet as lactose (in milk), and glucose and fructose from fruits, vegetables, and honey. Foods with naturally occurring sugars provide us with other nutrients and health benefits. Therefore, to say sugar is bad, is as oversimplified as saying fat is bad.
Glucose is our primary energy source, and all sugars are converted to glucose in our body. If we eat too much sugar for our energy requirements, then excess glucose is converted to fat and stored in fat cells, which can lead to weight gain. People who are obese are at higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease, with obesity being the biggest risk factor for developing type two diabetes. It’s a misconception that sugar can directly cause type two diabetes. Whilst the development of obesity is complex, it is fundamentally caused by excess calories, regardless of whether too much fat, sugar, or protein is eaten.
Added sugars have been targeted by recent public health interventions, because in a plentiful diet, these are viewed as ‘empty calories’ and can also cause tooth decay.
Complex problems require complex solutions.
The advice on sugar intake for the UK has not really changed since the 1970s.
There has always been emphasis on more fruit and vegetables. The only difference now, is that our government is taking action based on solid evidence, recognising that not just one nutritional component can be blamed for such a complex spectrum of metabolic disease. The UK introduced a sugar levy last year, but with government cuts, responsibility is now falling to local governments to tackle public health issues.
A multi-layered approach with a focus on community-based interventions is recommended and Sugar Smart is one such initiative run by the charity Sustain. Like the low-fat recommendations, it will be some time before we can assess the initiatives’ success. It’s impossible to say if trends will improve, but one thing I’m pretty certain of, is that one day, something else will be the new sugar.
Feature Article by: Anne Lecomber has a first-class honours (BSc) degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Greenwich. And has over 15 years’ experience working in the fitness industry as a Personal Trainer and Bodybuilder.