Fat vs Sugar. Who can you trust?

I feel like I’ve had a big week this week. The weather here in Melbourne has also been a bit lousy, which is never good for one’s mood. Although, given that it’s currently winter here, it’s hardly surprising! Tuesday, with its gale-force winds and rain, was particularly unpleasant. I was grateful not to be in Canberra (Australia’s capital), though, where locals had similar winds, but a maximum of just 6 degrees Celsius.

I’m not usually one for watching long TV programs or movies. But on days like Tuesday, there’s nothing like cosying up to a hot drink and hot water bottle, and sitting down for some good TV.

 

Some of you may have heard of popular personalities promoting diets high in butter and other animal fats, and saying that sugar is ‘toxic’. Many of you have probably heard of the old ‘low-fat’ eating advice, which was recommended by health professionals a decade or more ago. This perspective saw fat as the enemy.

“Fat vs. Sugar” (links to full documentary) aired a few days ago here in Australia, and aims to answer this question once and for all. Is fat or sugar the enemy?

The BBC documentary follows two British medical doctors who are identical twins, as they set out to explore whether fat or sugar is worse for you.  One of the twins follows a high-fat diet for one month, while the other twin follows a low-fat, high ‘sugar’ (carbohydrate) diet for the same period. The show spends most of the time investigating the effects of the diets on the twins.

While I will be the first to admit that their experiment is far from being strong evidence, it does provide some good entertainment. I also find that sometimes, seeing something in real-life puts a more personal spin on the nutritional advice you read about (especially if you’re not a ‘numbers person’).

 

 

The short answer is:

Neither fats nor carbohydrates (carbs; what the documentary calls ‘sugars’) are ‘toxic’, they’re essential nutrients. We need to eat sources of both. The best way to do this is to follow a simple way of eating, rich in plant foods (see my post on what food to eat). 

Dietitians don’t recommend low-fat diets, they recommend minimising animal fats. Replacing animal fats with plant oils, such as in nuts and avocado, is recommended (see related post).

‘Extras’ foods, like ice-cream, cakes, chocolate, lollies, pastry, soft drink… have no part in our everyday diet. Save them for an occasional (read: not everyday) treat.

 

My first tip would be to get your nutrition (and health) information from reputable sources. Advocating a balanced view of healthy eating isn’t exactly the way to become a millionaire overnight. So often you find people with questionable qualifications out to make a quick buck proclaiming a certain part of food as ‘toxic’, or a ‘saviour’, and a secret conspiracy by nutrition professionals to hide this saviour from you ([dramatic music] ‘The Holy Grail that nutrition experts don’t want you to know about…’).

If you’re reading mainstream magazines, watching commercial TV, or reading the websites of certain cashed-up nutrition ‘gurus’, you’re probably not doing yourself a huge favour. I also would have a headache and feel very confused if I listened to these gurus’ latest wild theories, and there seems to be a new wild theory every few months! Advertisements and health claims of packaged, processed foods also often just worsen the confusion.

 

From Whitney E and Rolfes SR. Understanding Nutrition. 11th ed. Belmont: Thomson Higher Education; 2008.

 

Tips to find reputable health information:

  • Websites ending in .gov, .gov.au, .gov.uk are Government-published websites, which have no commercial agenda. These are highly trustworthy, and give a balanced view of the facts.
  • For readers wanting it simple, simple, simple!: Go to the Mayo Clinic, or Better Health Channel websites.
  • For readers wanting more detail, but still in simple language: Go to Patient.co.uk.

 

Tips to find reputable nutrition information:

  • Consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian or a Registered Dietitian (US/UK) for personalised nutritional advice. This is often rebatable from your health fund or insurance plan, but check with your provider for details.
  • The British Dietetic Association has some great fact sheets on a range of nutrition-related subjects.
  • Scoop Nutrition and the Nutrition Blog Network both have comprehensive directories of the blogs of Registered Dietitians.
  • If you’ve got a particular question about a diet, or a nutrition topic that’s been in the media, eDietitians has a range of articles written by qualified dietitians, written in a magazine style.
  • For a particular medical condition, often the association for that condition will also have some great information. For example, the Heart Foundation (Au/UK/US), Coeliac Foundation (Au/UK/US), and Diabetes Associations (Au/UK/US) are great resources. With smaller associations, it’s often a good idea to ensure that the person writing the article is a Dietitian, Medical Doctor, or Medical Researcher in that field, to ensure you can trust the information.

 

Got another website or other source of nutrition information that you can recommend? What do you think of the Fat vs. Sugar documentary?

I look forward to coming back next week and setting the facts straight about Omega-6 and seed oils, in Part 2 of my post series on Fats and Oils.

Hope everyone has a great weekend!

 

– Sonia.

Exploring Fats. Part 1: Saturated, Unsaturated and Trans Fats.

This is the first in a series of three posts that looks at the role of fats and oils in our diet. This first post breaks down the different types of fat that you see on food labels: saturated, unsaturated and trans. The second and third posts will look into the highly topical omega-3 (found especially in oily fish) and omega-6 fats (found especially in seeds and their oils).

I’m writing this series in response to requests from several different readers, on similar themes. If you’ve made a request for a different post subject that I haven’t addressed yet, I thank you for your input and I will get to your topic soon!

***

What are fats?

Let’s start at the very basic. Fats and oils are essentially two words that refer to the same thing. We call them ‘fats’ when they’re solid at room temperature (think the fat on meat, or lard), and ‘oils’ when they’re liquid at room temperature. Fats are a essential component of our diet.

The following are all 80-100% fat:

  • Vegetable oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil etc
  • Fish oil
  • Cod liver oil
  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Ghee (‘clarified butter’)
  • Fat on meat
  • Dripping
  • Suet
  • Shortening

 

Butter- high in saturated fat.

 

Fats and energy

Like carbohydrates and protein, fats give us energy. You may have heard the terms ‘calories’ or ‘kilojoules’. We measure the energy in food in calories or kilojoules, depending on whether you use an imperial or metric system. Energy in food goes towards maintaining our body weight, and gives us the energy to do all the things we do each day. If we don’t get enough energy from food, we lose weight. If we eat too much, we gain weight.

 

Different types of fat

On a sub-microscopic level, fats are made up of millions of smaller components, called molecules. The molecules in fat are called ‘fatty acids’. 

There are several different types of fatty acid. You may have come across these on the Nutrition Information Panels of food products when you’re at the supermarket. The main types of fatty acid are: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans. Or, more simply, saturated and unsaturated.

All fats/oils contain a mixture of these types of fatty acid. For example, if we look at the Nutrition Information Panel of one brand of butter (see image below), we see that although butter contains 80.5 grams of fat per 100g of butter (80.5% fat), “only” 53.1 grams of this is saturated fatty acids. So although the majority of fat in butter is saturated, some of it is unsaturated.

 

Nutrition Information Panel of Butter Note the fat content per 100g

Nutrition Information Panel of Butter
Note that butter, like other fats, contains a mixture of different types of fat (see where circled).

 

Saturated fatty acids

Solid fats are high in saturated fatty acids. These are usually animal fats, although coconut and palm oil, and cocoa butter, are also high in saturated fatty acids. (Coconut and palm oil are only called ‘oils’ because they are liquid at room temperature in their native tropical climate; they are solid at room temperature in temperate climates)

 

Copha is a brand of coconut oil which is sold in Australia. According to the Nutrition Information Panel, Copha is 98% saturated fat.

Copha is a brand of hydrogenated coconut oil which is sold in Australia.
According to the Nutrition Information Panel, Copha is 98% saturated fat.

 

A diet high in saturated fats increases “bad” LDL-cholesterol, and increases your risk of having a heart attack. Public health bodies around the world recommend minimising the amount of saturated fats in our diet. I mentioned in the last post that current average intakes of saturated fat in the West are almost double the Heart Foundation’s recommendations (12% versus 7%).

Major sources of saturated fat in the average Westerner’s diet include:

  • Meat, including bacon and processed meats
  • Butter
  • Cream and sour cream
  • Full-cream milk and yoghurt
  • Regular fat cheese
  • Coconut milk and coconut cream
  • Chocolate
  • Cakes
  • Biscuits
  • Pies and pastries

Choosing reduced fat milk, yoghurt and cheese is a great way to reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat, and still get enough calcium.

 

Replace coconut milk with evaporated milk with coconut flavouring to cut the amount of saturated fat in your diet, without compromising on taste. Find it in the long-life milk section of the supermarket.

Replace coconut milk with evaporated milk with coconut flavouring to cut the amount of saturated fat in your diet, without compromising on taste. Find it in the long-life milk section of the supermarket.

 

Choosing reduced fat dairy options is a great way to reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat, while still getting enough calcium.

Choosing reduced fat dairy options is a great way to reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat, while still getting enough calcium.

 

Unsaturated fatty acids

Liquid oils are high in unsaturated fatty acids. Foods high in unsaturated fatty acids include oils, nuts and seeds (i.e. they’re from plants). They’re also found in their derivatives, such as margarine and similar spreads, peanut butter and tahini. Eating a handful of nuts and/or seeds every day is good for our health.

 

(L): Extra virgin olive oil; (R): Canola oil. Both high in unsaturated fats, and a good choice for heart health.

 

There are two main types of unsaturated fatty acids: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated fatty acids

Good sources include:

  • Plant oils, including canola, olive & soybean
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Peanut butter
  • Avocado

Polyunsaturated fatty acids

Consist of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Good sources include:

  • Seed oils (such as canola, sunflower or flaxseed)
  • Seeds
  • Oily fish (such as mackerel, herring/kippers, sardines, salmon, trout, tuna)
  • Walnuts and Brazil nuts
  • Wheat germ

 

Tahini (sesame seed spread) is a good source of unsaturated fats.

Tahini (sesame seed spread) is a good source of unsaturated fats. This tahini is made from black sesame seeds.

 

Trans fats

As a simple summary, trans fats are produced when plant oils are chemically altered to become solid. In the process, the unsaturated fats turn into trans fats. Trans fats are even worse for your heart than saturated fats. They are found in old-style margarines and any food where you see the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list. For more information, see my summary about trans fats in my last post.

 

Health effects

Importantly, low-fat diets are no longer recommended. Instead, there is strong evidence to support replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, but still eating a moderate amount of fat. In general, this means eating fewer foods high in animal fats, and more nuts, seeds and plant oils. Aim for a handful of nuts on most days. In the case of milk, cheese and yoghurt, this means choosing reduced fat options.

 

To summarise:

  • Try to minimise the amount of saturated fats in your diet.
  • Try to have more unsaturated fats in your diet.
  • (In general: less animal fat; more plant oils, nuts and seeds)
  • Low-fat diets are no longer recommended. Instead, a way of eating that is high in unsaturated fats (plant oils, nuts and seeds) and low in saturated fats (animal fats) is recommended.

 

If you have any questions, or want clarification, please comment below.

Next post, I’ll explore Omega-6 fatty acids and seed oils, which have received a lot of bad press lately. Stay tuned!

 

Disclaimer: The summary provided above is for the general public, and should not replace advice given by a dietitian or doctor. If you need dietary advice tailored to your individual circumstances, consult your GP or Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).