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"Fat makes you fat and sugar gives you diabetes." This is what usually comes to mind when we talk about fat and sugar. Being the harbinger of various life-threatening diseases, both are said to be the most dangerous ingredients of the modern diet.
Many health conscious people have become so scared of fat and sugar that food manufacturers today slap the magic words "Nonfat" and "Sugar free" on their labels to ensure sales. Despite the slightly higher pricing, these fat and sugar free alternatives have evolved to become the "healthier" choices compared to their regular counterparts.
But to set the records straight once and for all - are sugar and fat both "evil"? Should we really keep ourselves away from them? If yes, then which one must be avoided even more?
As a Matter of Fat
Filipinos know that eating fatty food can lead to cardiovascular diseases, and yet we love lechon, chicharon, and all the oily goodness of other Pinoy dishes like crispy pata and sizzling sisig. Although it is true that fat content of most Pinoy dishes are of the bad kind, you should understand that not all fats are created the same.
Fat isn't actually always bad. It's part of a healthy diet, providing you the essential fatty acids and energy for your daily activities. We need fat to aid in our digestion and excretion of wastes. It also keeps our hair and skin supple and healthy. Fat also helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamins A, D and E.
There are four types of fat: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats. The fats that have been reported to cause cardiovascular problems such as heart disease and hypertension are saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats can be found in animal fats, coconut oils, dairy products, and palm oils. Trans fats, on the other hand, are artificially developed fats manufactured to prolong shelf life of packed food like cookies, crackers, pastries and chips. These two types have given fat its "evil" reputation.
But there are two other types of fat that actually contribute to good health. Polyunsaturated fats are found in common vegetable oils like soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, walnuts and fish. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, avocados, almonds, peanuts cashews, and pecans. Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are two of the most misunderstood components of food today - according to the International Food Information Council's 2008 study, 43% of Americans think that polyunsaturated fats are not heatlhy, while 38% of them feel the same way about monounsaturated fats.
What's the reason behind the bad reputation of fat? Many believe that our general perception of fat today is a product of several years of misleading and confusing information. Studies conducted before on saturated fat & trans fat alarmed the government that in 1984, the National Institute of Health gave a recommendation to limit daily fat intake. This gave rise to an unpleasant public opinion on all types of fat - making the word equivalent to something "evil", something we should be wary of.
Because people want to stop eating food with fat, the food industry started developing products that are being advertised as "nonfat" or "fat free". What weight watchers don't know is that manufacturers substituted fat with sugar in order to make up for the compromised taste. We will discuss more about the effects of consuming food high in sugar later.
Today, after several more studies and research that exonerate mono and polyunsaturated fats, the US Department of Agriculture now recommends that we get about 20% to 35% of our daily calorie intake from these "good guys". The McKinley Health Center website mentions how crucial fat is for normal growth and development. The Harvard School of Public Health even states that good fats can contribute in lowering disease risk.
Some nutritionists think that we should get more than 35% of our daily caloric intake from mono and polyunsaturated fats. According to nutrition consultant Heather Fleming, we should get two servings of the good types of fat per meal. Fleming recognizes the importance of healthy fats in reenergizing our body's cells.
New studies are also surfacing to debunk our previous misconceptions about saturated fat. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, there is actually no significant evidence that links saturated fat with increased risk of heart disease, contrary to popular belief. Both conventional and holistic medicines are now considering meat and other sources of saturated fats to be actually good for our health.
The bitter side of sugar
Man-made sugar was never really a major part of human diet until the last few thousand years. Before that, we were happy getting our dose of sweetness from honeybees.
Eventually we learned to manufacture sugar from sugarcane and sugar beets, then from corn and wheat. Sugar has become such a staple today that many people swear they could never enjoy most kinds of treats and drinks without it. In 1938, a study revealed that a person normally consumed about 16.3 kilograms, an equivalent study conducted after 50 years revealed that the per person consumption rose to 48.3 kilograms. This simply tells us that our generation is chugging in more sugar than any human being in history.
Don't get confused. Although it is true that we need sugar to keep our blood levels in check, many people do not know that all the carbohydrates that we eat are broken down into sugar already. This means, we do not need to take in more sugar anymore. There is no extra benefit in adding a teaspoonful of it on our cup of coffee except for making our drink taste sweeter.
So what happens to the extra sugar that we take in from the desserts and beverages that we enjoy on a daily basis? Just like any other turbo charged machine, our body's natural hormonal responses go to hyper drive when we have too much of it. High sugar intake makes us produce more of the hormone insulin.
Insulin manages our sugar levels and stores excess of it into fat for future consumption. The more sugar you bring in, the more insulin is released and the more fat is stored. So don't ever wonder why you keep packing on pounds if you're a full fledged sweet tooth. Excess sugar in your diet also results to Type II diabetes, iron and magnesium deficiencies, sleeplessness, digestive problems, arthritis, obesity and other debilitating health conditions.
What's even more dangerous about consuming sugar is that, unlike fat, there is currently no upper limit established for its intake. According to the 2002 review by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Science Institute of Medicine review of scientific literature, there was "no adverse health effects" related to sugar intake. Until today, nutrition labels are still not required to list an upper limit for daily sugar intake. Only those of total fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol are required to be listed, based on standard 2000 and 2500 calorie diet per day.
Until sugar intake limits are set, the rise in incidences of Type II diabetes, obesity and other sugar-related disorders can be expected to rise.
Fat versus Sugar
Now, after all that has been said about fat and sugar, do you know which one is more "evil"? Which one does more harm than good to our body? If you weigh the pros and cons presented earlier, you'll agree with the experts: the answer is sugar.
If you aren't really convinced yet, here's a summary of why it is so:
We already get the sugar we need from carbohydrates. Any additional sugar we take in will only cause nasty side effects on our health. Fat, on the other hand, is needed by the body to function well.
People who love eating sugar-laden processed food and drinks tend to consume more calories than those who don't. This is because sugar acts like drug, it makes one want to crave more while he/she is getting it. This causes a person to consume lots of calories, more than what is required everyday.
Sugary foods bring the body under constant stress, according to nutrition consultant Heather Fleming, subjecting it into sudden surges of energy. These surges, also known as the "sugar rush", are followed by episodes of low energy.
Added sugar provides "empty calories" meaning there are no additional nutrients gained. Fat, on the other hand, is nutrient dense, so consuming a small amount of it will result in satisfaction of cravings. This makes you want to eat less often and have your fill with smaller portions.
Refined sugar is not a natural form of food, just like trans fats. Our body is not meant to break down artificial substances. Good fats, including saturated fats, have been present in the human diet for thousands of years already and our body knows how to digest this.
Sugar is not part of the Food Pyramid, fat is. This alone indicates that adding artificial sugar on food is not part of a healthy diet. It's a kind of "junk" food.
Eat Fat, Avoid Sugar
So what should you do to stay healthy? Heed the warning of experts - steer away from adding refined sugar on your food as much as possible! You may not notice its detrimental effects yet, but you will in the long run.
Eat balanced meals according to the Food Pyramid and include hefty servings of mono and polyunsaturated fat sources like nuts, avocados, and fish. Include animal meat as part of your meal, but of course, watch your servings. Anything taken in moderation is okay, but if you eat too much of even the good stuff, you'll just increase your calorie intake and gain weight eventually.
Avoid trans fats found in packed pastries, cookies and chips. You actually resort to quick fixes like packed cookies if you fail to plan your meals ahead. Stock your kitchen shelves with fresh fruits and preservative-free snacks to keep you from craving trans fatty food. If you want bread and pastries, opt for freshly baked ones or better yet, bake it yourself.
Read labels before buying food and drinks, especially bottled fruit juices and vitamin waters that pack in loads of sugar. As mentioned earlier, many "nonfat" or "fat free" products that are supposedly "healthier" usually compensate lost taste with sugar so make sure you avoid them as well.
Refrain from drinking soda as this comes with several servings of sugar in every cup. If you love drinking soda and can't do away with it, at least choose a sugar free variant. However, be warned that sugar substitutes like aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose are also artificially manufactured substances just like refined sugar itself so use them sparingly.
Instead of eating lots of "nonfat" or "sugar free" food, nutritionists advise that we learn to control ourselves and eat smaller portions of regular food. For example, instead of indulging on 3 or 4 tablespoons of "fat free" peanut butter that doesn't really taste as good as the real thing, why not use 1 tablespoon of regular peanut butter instead? Remember, fat gives you the feeling of satisfaction faster than sugar, so you end up eating less.
Stay away from artificial ingredients in general since your body is not meant to consume them anyway. Try to take in natural and organic food - from crops that have been grown and harvested without the use of commercial pesticides and fertilizers - and you'll reap the benefits later on.