There have been several recent articles questioning and evaluating our fear of fat, perhaps most notably in Time. Research is ongoing, but experts seem to agree on one thing: sugar can be worse for your health than saturated fats found in red meat and dairy products. Fat intake has gone down for several decades, while sugar and carbohydrate consumption has skyrocketed. The result? The rate of diabetes jumped 166 percent from 1980 to 2012, and cardiovascular death has remained the No. 1 killer in the United States, despite lower rates of smoking and better emergency care.
Where does that leave us? Well, quite possibly, confused and frustrated. We have to eat something, right? First, fat is bad for us, now sugar, and who knows what’s next? I’d love to give you a simple answer, but there really isn’t one. Dr. David Katz, the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, said, “The cold hard truth is that the only way to eat well is to eat well.” Let’s discuss that and do what we can to make sense of it.
The risk of sugar
We all probably realize that a can of Coke or Pepsi isn’t good for us. It’s a lot of empty calories. It can leave us groggy and increase food cravings, but it doesn’t stop there. Sugar raises your cholesterol levels and increases insulin production (thus causing weight gain), and new research suggests sugar can raise your blood pressure even more than salt. (I’d like to add that these findings don’t seem conclusive, and plenty of experts maintain that lowering your weight and salt intake is the most important component to lowering your blood pressure.) The scary part is that your body registers sugar and carbohydrates the same way, and therefore, carbs pose the same health risks.
Our bodies were simply not designed to handle so much sugar; our livers are confused and overwhelmed by the massive amount we ingest; and that sugar gets converted into LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. And although it’s easy to blame your sweet tooth for your overindulgence, scientists at Edinburgh University say it’s not sugar we’re addicted to-it’s the act of eating we can’t get enough of. Certain foods, such as sweets, may have been conditioned into positive feelings, but chances are that your addiction is not substance-based; it is a behavioral disorder. Does that mean it’s easy to beat? Absolutely not, but it does mean a change in pattern, routine and thinking may allow you to overcome your eating habits. If you can’t do this alone (and seriously, there’s no shame in asking for help), talk to a therapist about how to break your bad habits.
The current data on artificial sweeteners shows …
There are plenty of reasons to think the artificial sweeteners in diet drinks aren’t very good for us, but they’re zero calories, so if you’re watching your weight and don’t want to hate your life, you put up with it and drink them anyway. I do it too, but although there are a lot of headlines about how bad diet drinks and artificial sweeteners are, it’s pretty difficult to find anything like a definitive link or study proving this. Katz said, “For every study that shows there could be a benefit or harm, there’s another that shows no ‘there’ there.” The American Beverage Association claims researchers and the media choose to ignore studies showing little or no link between sodas and weight gain.
Artificial sweeteners might raise blood-sugar levels and alter the composition of gut bacteria, which could lead to obesity or diabetes. So far, this is only the case for some people, and the research was limited to seven human participants. So, as it stands now, it seems like artificial sweeteners might not undo a healthy and active lifestyle, but you should still practice moderation. Their full effect on your body simply is not known yet.
What’s left to eat?
You can’t always avoid eating something that’s less than healthy for you, and really, you shouldn’t have to. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cut back on certain foods. You should eat less refined sugars, pasta, candy, cereal, toast, bagels and pizza. They’re high in carbohydrates, which to your body means a high intake of sugar. Pick out 100 percent whole grain options when shopping for these foods. Replace a side of rice with quinoa. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Try the Mediterranean diet because it allows you to eat real food and even fat, but it does stick to the healthier fats and more natural ingredients-which have higher amounts of fiber that our bodies are more used to digesting. You’re even allowed to have a steak once in a while and not feel bad about it. Fats and proteins keep you full longer and aid in weight loss. That’s why low-fat diets usually don’t work. You’re hungry all the time, and you end up eating more throughout the day.
Basically, remember that we live in a high-carb world. Public perception and even consumer products are often wrong or stuck on outdated ideas when it comes to what’s good for you to consume. It’s your job to be aware of what you’re eating and what it’s doing to your body, and know when it’s time to say no.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.