Sugar vs. Fat - How Fat has Taken the Rap for Sugar's Mischeif

There is a strong debate going about the health risks of consuming sugar versus fat. It’s difficult to know what or who to believe. And the information presented to us keeps changing.

Is sugar causing obesity and diabetes? Is fat responsible for heart disease? Are they both evil, or are they being falsely villianized?

Of course, like most health-related issues, the answers aren’t simple. Some fats are good for us andsmall amounts of glucose are necessary. In a culture of extremes, we must look for moderation in this heated debate.

“The diet industry is polarized around simple debates such as fat vs sugar because there are huge amounts of money at stake. Farmers, food manufacturers, lobbyists, scientists and authors of diet books need to defend one or other side.”

- Dr. Alexander Van Tulleken, MD, The Sugar Blues

It’s easy to villianize sugar. And there are good reasons to.

Yet, sugars found in fruits, vegetables and grass-fed dairy products are balanced with dietary fibers and essential nutrients. The consumption of these sugars is not bad, it’s the amount of sugar consumed in the average American diet that is the problem.

Consider this: it is believed that in 1822 the average American consumed 45g of sugar every 5 days and in 2012 the average American consumed 765g of sugar every 5 days. That’s about 130 pounds of sugar a year. And most people don’t know half the time that they are even eating sugar because it is hidden away in supposedly savory, store-bought foods. Until the government acknowledges the link between the spike in American sugar consumption and serious illness and puts restrictions on the “sugar-marketing” that has become so prevalent, it is up to us to regulate our own sugar intake.

“Humans weren't designed to eat this much sugar. We used to get sugar once a year when fruit fell from the trees. Even honey was protected by the bees… Now, we eat 140 pounds, roughly, a year, on average. Our bodies simply didn’t evolve to be able to handle that.

So it hits the liver, the liver says I don't know what to do with all this sugar, so it starts to metabolize it in unusual ways and it gets turned into what are known as low-density lipoprotein particles. And that's the worst kind of cholesterol.”

–Sanjay Gupta, Chief medical correspondent CNN

The food industry is not doing us any favors when they add sugar to most packaged and prepared foods: spaghetti sauce, salad dressing, crackers and chips. Even the organic ones. When we eat these foods we don’t think we are getting huge doses of sugar, but we are. Likewise, carbohydrates convert to sugar in the body and many carbohydrate foods like white bread also contain no nutrients. Your body feels full, but actually it is starving because those empty calories do not provide the body with the nutrient resources it needs.

“If you want to lose weight it will be much easier if you avoid processed foods made with sugar and fat. These foods affect your brain in a completely different way from natural foods and it's hard for anyone to resist eating too much.”

-Dr. Alexander Van Tulleken, MD

Fruits and other natural sources of sugar also include nutrients and dietary fibers needed for a healthy system. Added sugars and industrial seed oils (canola, safflower, sunflower, see below for a more complete list) add calories without providing any nutrients, hence the term “empty calories.” These foods make your body feel full, but really it is not getting the nutrients it needs. Enough of an imbalanced diet and the body thinks it’s starving, even as weight is gained.

On a list of ingredients, sugar may be listed under the following names: sucrose (table sugar), corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup (made in labs to be even sweeter than possible in nature), fruit-juice concentrates, nectars, raw sugar, malt syrup, maple syrup, fructose sweeteners, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, or other words ending in “-ose,” the chemical suffix for sugars. Sadly, even natural and organic foods touted as being healthy contain evaporated cane juice. Which is just sugar with a fancy name.

All said, there’s good reason to seriously reduce the amount of sugar you consume, even natural sugars.

Reasons to Avoid Sugar

1) Sugar consumption has a strong negative impact on the immune system. At a blood sugar level of 120 and above, the body's ability to destroy viruses and bacteria is reduced by up to 75%. As little as 20 grams of sugar has the capacity to compromise immune function for the 4-6 hours following ingestion. Recent studies have shown that long-term daily ingestion of sugar raises the risk of developing cancer by as much as 60%.

2) Sugar consumption depletes minerals from the body tissues, skeleton, and teeth. Mineral depletion occurs from sugar consumption in several ways. Most obviously, sugar represents "empty" calories in the diet thereby reducing daily nutrient intake. In addition, sugar upsets absorption of nutrients that we do eat by compromising the integrity of our digestive tract. Finally, a high sugar diet promotes inflammation and oxidative stress that out body has to counteract by pulling neutralizing minerals out of our bony stores and teeth.

3) Sugar consumption leads to weight gain and cardiovascular disease. Unless the fructose from sugar consumption is immediately used as fuel, the liver stores it as fat. Fat is transported away from the liver into peripheral fat stores by LDL and VLDL (types of cholesterol), raising the risk for cardiovascular disease. Oxidative stress from high blood-glucose compounds this problem by creating inflammation along the walls of the arteries.

4) Sugar is addictive. Sugar consumption stimulates the "reward" centers of the brain by initiating a surge of dopamine release. This effect is also seen with the ingestion of cocaine, opiates, alcohol, amphetamine, and nicotine. In addition, sugar promotes the release of endorphins, which create a sense of euphoria and increase the likelihood of addiction.

5) Sugar causes depression. Because the brain relies on a stable supply of glucose for normal functioning, rapidly rising and falling blood glucose significantly undermine its functioning. Depression, anxiety, aggression, and fatigue are all side effects of sugar consumption because the brain struggles to adapt to the highs and lows in blood sugar provoked by rapid absorption of glucose from the gut.

6) Sugar consumption leads to insulin resistance and can pave the way for gestational or type 2 diabetes. The accumulation of fat in the liver following excess sugar consumption is a trigger for the body to begin "ignoring" insulin, the hormone that drives sugar into our cells. As insulin resistance worsens over time, type 2 diabetes develops. Complications of diabetes are systemic and can include cardiovascular disease, kidney damage, poor wound healing, and neuropathy.

7) Sugar strongly interferes with digestive health by favoring the growth of intestinal yeast and slowing the passage of food through the intestine. Overgrowth of yeast leads to permeability of the gut wall and undigested proteins can "leak" into the blood stream. The immune system reacts to foreign protein in the blood, leading to food allergies and setting the stage for auto-immune diseases.

8) Sugar consumption by children is associated with learning disabilities, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, allergies, obesity, tooth decay and eczema.

9) Sugar consumption during pregnancy can lead to gestational diabetes, toxemia, and premature labor. Children born to mothers who consumed high sugar diets during pregnancy are more likely to be obese and struggle with insulin resistance and diabetes during their life.

Because of its strongly addictive quality, sugar represents an increasingly prevalent portion of the American diet. Although sugar consumption has become mainstream, it is important to remember that sugar is a highly processed plant derivative that is challenging for the body to process on a daily basis.

Sugar consumption taxes every system in the body including the digestive system, immune system, cardiovascular system, and skeletal system. Diets that are high in sugar have been associated with high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, autoimmune disease, allergies, attention deficit disorder, depression, and cancer.

For more info on sugar and what it does in the body:

The Good and the Bad

“Next to sugar, there is not a worse food to put in your mouth than vegetable oils. They look suspiciously similar to sugar because these oils are highly processed and highly refined. They are very unstable (think: create free-radicals), they turn into trans-fats, and when you consume these oils, they increase inflammation in your body.”

–Dr. Scott Olson, ND.

The difference between healthy fats and unhealthy fats is extreme. Fat is essential to the body for several reasons. It stores energy. It insulates us. But most importantly, our cell membranes are made of phospholipids, glycolipids, and cholesterol.

The cell membrane is what protects the cell from its surroundings and decides what enters the cell and what doesn’t via selective permeability. Phospholipids are the largest component in the cell wall and they are essentially made up of saturated and unsaturated fats. Lipids allow for nutrient exchange. Cell health affects everything: brain function, heart health, joint mobility, to name a few. Simply put: eating good fat ensures that the cell membrane has integrity and is protected.

Furthermore the good fats in our diet are not the ones that make us overweight. Eating bad fat compromises all the cells of the body. Bad fat is what affects cholesterol levels, creates fat storage and clogs up the liver. And by “bad fat” I don’t mean saturated fat. I mean processed, human-made fat. Fat that offers the body nothing and replaces important building blocks with poor, unstable substitutes.

“’Bad’ fats, such as trans fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, and so forth. But good fats such as omega-3s have the opposite effect. In fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.”

- Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal Ph.D.


Good Fats

Monounsaturated Fats

  • Avocados and Avocado Oil
  • Olives and Olive Oil
  • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)
  • Natural nut butter (containing just nuts and salt)

Polyunsaturated Fats

  • Walnuts
  • Sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds
  • Flaxseed and Flax Seed oil (keep refrigerated)
  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines)
  • Non-GMO soymilk and tofu

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • Salmon (especially wild-caught king and sockeye)
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Anchovies
  • Oysters
  • Sardines
  • Pole and line-caught tuna
  • Lake trout
  • Algae such as seaweed (high in EPA and DHA)
  • Fish oil or algae supplements
  • Walnuts
  • Flaxseed
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Parsley

Other Good Sources of Fat

  • Grass-fed beef, bison and pork
  • Grass-fed dairy (for those who tolerate dairy)
  • Free-range chicken
  • Free-range chicken eggs

The Importance of Grass-fed Meat

Grass-fed beef has up to five times more Omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef. It has two to five times as much CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid)- oddly enough one of the number one weight loss supplements in the world and associated with lowering cancer risk. When they do studies that say red meat can cause cancer and is unhealthy for the heart, they are talking about corn-fed, factory-farmed red meat, not grass fed red meat. It’s a whole different animal.

Grass fed animals live under humane conditions and have less of an impact on the environment, unlike factory farming, known to be as bad for the environment as driving. The close-quarters of factory-farmed cows require the use of antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. Those antibiotics are then transferred to our bodies when we eat the meat, affecting the delicate balance of our gut microbia. Growth hormone is used in factory farming to increase the size of the animals before they are slaughtered. This also transfers to the human body upon consumption.

It’s no wonder red meat has gotten a bad reputation! If studies are done using meat from animals that live in their own feces, are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, often never see the sunlight, can’t move they are packed in so tight and die in terror, it is no surprise to me that the results reflect negatively on the consumption of red meat.

And sadly, the only reason corn-fed, factory farmed meat is cheaper is that the government subsidizes corn, saving feedlot farmers billions a year and doing nothing for the environmentally aware, humane grass-fed meat farms.

For more on this issue:

Bad Fats

Artificial trans fats are really what you are looking to avoid. Anything with a shelf life. As in: most packaged foods. Human-made vegetable oils are fats that have been deformed during a process called “hydrogenation.” Vegetable oil is combined with hydrogen gas to create oil that will not spoil if it sits around on a grocery store shelf for 8 months. These partially hydrogenated oils (you may have heard that term before!) increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes by raising the bad cholesterol, LDL, lowering the good cholesterol, HDL and creating inflammation in the body.

These fats can be found in:

  • Packaged snack foods
  • Margarine and processed vegetable oils: Safflower, Sunflower, Canola, Palm Kernel, Corn, Soybean, Cottonseed, Peanut, Grapeseed
  • Commercially produced cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and breads
  • All “partially hydrogenated” oils

For more on how to eliminate bad fats and incorporate good fats into your diet, see this informative article:


After Note:

Allow me a small tirade. Health should not be a trend. Access to healthy food should not be a luxury or a privilege. But it is. Most food as it originates in nature is healthy. It is through genetic modification, forced crop growth and harvest and processing that food becomes unhealthy.

What we are offered in boxes, bags and cans at the store has traveled so far and gone through so many steps to get to us. More often than not each of those steps detracts from its benefits to our body.

The simpler, the fresher and the less processed food is, the better it is for the body. Plants and humans evolved together, after all.

It is a major problem that the food industries responsible for a majority of our health problems are subsidized and supported by our government. It is a problem that small, organic farms struggle, and that simple food costs more money than processed food. Because our health affects every other thing in our lives, because the health of the American people is a current crisis, I cannot help but think we need a food revolution.

Healthy food should be a basic human right.

Posted on February 11, 2016 and filed under Nutrition.