Few subjects evoke such strong emotions and opinions as the ultimate, healthy human diet. Following any such debate or discussion on an internet forum or a news comments section will highlight the passion and the dogma surrounding what we put in our mouths, particularly when we discuss fats and sugars. So why is it that we don’t just defer to the best evidence like other areas of medical science? Perhaps it’s because there is so much conflicting information out there, so many documentaries, nutritionists, dieticians, doctors, laymen, trainers, academics, researchers and authors – each with their own advice, some with a financial stake in it. They can’t all be right. So what does the evidence say about fats and sugars, and how we should approach them?
Times Are a Changin’
In the seventies and eighties, dietary fats were identified as enemy number one, and routinely stripped from packaged goods. We saw the rise of margarine and the words “low fat”, “fat free” and “lite” were plastered over food labels. Aerobics and jogging were the fitness fads of choice, though a growing contingent opted for a convenience lifestyle over an active one, exemplified by the 1980s ‘Life Be In It’ campaign character, Norm. It was the Atkins diet versus the Scarsdale diet.
Fast-forward thirty or forty years, and our popular new nemesis is sugar. It is referred to as toxic, and even addictive, and bookstore shelves display titles such as “I Quit Sugar”, and “Sweet Poison”. Since sugar is a carbohydrate, the Atkins, the Dukan diet and the Paleo diets, all low-carb based, have maintained relevance throughout the debate. So what are their merits?
The Paleo Diet
Also known as the caveman diet, this is an anti-carbohydrate (and by extension, anti-sugar) food trend recently adopted by thousands of Westerners who argue that our Palaeolithic ancestors got it right. So what does it have to offer?
In favour: You’ll have a heavier focus on vegetables and will learn to shun calorie-dense, heavily processed foods. You’ll reduce your alcohol intake and find weight control far easier than you used to. You’ll also have a renewed focus on natural, simple flavours and quality produce.
Against: A true Paleo diet is impossible. Vegetation was very different at that time, and critics note that wild game was eaten only when it was available – there were no domesticated cows and sheep for our dietary convenience. The focus on meat and animal products (minus dairy) also leave us vulnerable to the effects of low-density lipoproteins, or the cholesterol that leads to arterial blockages. Completely cutting grains, which provide valuable energy and dietary fibre, as well as dairy products that are rich in vitamins and minerals, can leave us nutritionally unbalanced. Besides, alongside the agricultural revolution, most humans evolved to process these dietary additions quite well.
The Atkins Diet
Perhaps the most controversial diet of the late 20th century, Atkins promoted a low-carbohydrate diet in which most calories were derived from proteins. Detractors raised concerns about heart and kidney disease, and proponents defended the diet on the basis that it was relatively easy to adhere to, and got results. The diet has seen a revamp in recent times, which prompts us to ask: what are the risks and benefits?
Pros: You will almost certainly lose weight. Restricting carbohydrate intake forces the body to break down fats for energy. Also, because of the emphasis on red meat, fish, foul, dairy, and eggs, dieters feel more satisfied by each meal and less like they are being deprived.
Cons: Restricting carbohydrates, even quality carbohydrates like pulses, legumes and fruit, over the long term can result in kidney damage in susceptible people. You are also limiting your glucose levels, which your brain solely relies upon in order to function, and your dietary fibre, required for a healthy colon. As a result, nutrient deficiencies may begin to show even in the early stages of the diet. The high amount of saturated fats also has the potential to lead to heart disease in the long term.
See also: The Dukan Diet, which also promotes a low-carb, high protein focus, but gradually reintroduces certain vegetables, fruits and dairy.
So – Are Sugars to Blame for the Obesity Epidemic?
Sadly, a simple yes or no is inadequate to answer this question. The Australian Paradox, a study that highlights rising obesity in Australia as sugar consumption has fallen, indicates that the problem is more complicated than that. Leading researchers have now told us to look at the quality of our fats and carbohydrates rather than grouping grains and white rice in the same category, but the consuming public does not receive complicated messages all that well.
If we can learn one thing from several decades of dietary research, it’s that pointing the finger at one single cause of obesity and associated ill-health has failed us, usually the demonisation of carbohydrates and simple sugars on the one hand, or fats on the other. Nutritional science and metabolism is complicated, and simplifying it to a single mantra, devoid of all nuance, does nobody any favours – unless your message is for sale.
The Final Word
Overall, a balanced approach with a focus on quality calories is a safe choice. Fewer calories overall lead to weight loss and a reduced incidence of lifestyle diseases. Certain sugars and fats are very useful, and even necessary, and other forms serve only to pleasure our taste buds. Learn which is which by comparing the nutrient density. Common sense and moderation are your best tools as you navigate your way through all the noise.