Which is worse: Fat or Sugar?
Both have been identified in books, conferences, and even research as the reason and answer to the question everyone tries to answer: “Why are we fat?”
The real answer is that you are asking the wrong question.
Trying to pin an epidemic like obesity or a psychological battle like eating disorders on a single nutrient is a trigger. It begins a vicious process that underlies the real reason why the number of overweight people continue to grow, despite tremendous efforts to make people healthier. Making a diet stressful and cumbersome only makes it more likely that a particular approach will not succeed.
That’s not to say focused behaviors that limit food options don’t work. The Paleo movement has shown there are plenty of people that can and are willing to cut out all processed foods. The low carb movement has stricken bread, pasta, rice, and all other starches from diets and people have lost weight. But these are relatively small sub-segments and inadvertently designed for people that are wired a certain way.
Fitness communities love to berate “fat people” for not being able to make certain changes. Words like “lazy” or “lack of willpower” are tossed around at ease. But what if the changes that are being suggested aren’t sustainable for their lives, their habits and mindset, or even their budget?
The intent of these suggestions isn’t the issue: whether you believe the low carb or low fat hypothesis (or any other effective dietary approach) doesn’t matter. Each side desperately wants to help. And their research does just that with one fatal flaw: most are “extremist” approaches that create an exclusivity mindset.
Your eating habits should not be black and white. But it’s that very mentality oftentimes forces dietary habits into a position that make it more likely that people will fail and spiral into behavior that will leave them gaining weight.
Fat Frustration: Why Diets Keeping Failing
There isn’t one “right” way to lose weight. And there’s no urgent need to discover new mechanisms of shedding fat. We already know plenty of effective mechanisms. Instead, more effort needs to focus on why people struggle with the current approaches that work.
Over the last 10 years I’ve worked with hundreds of people to help them lose weight, and while I have preferences (usually a mix of calorie and carb cycling), different techniques work for different people. Some love to count calories while others do not. Some want several small meals while others prefer fewer snacks and more big meals. When you look at all of the plans, many of the nutrition principles are the same, but the application is different and never extreme.
The ongoing search for a “magic bullet” that solves every nutrition problem is where the system breaks down. It’s hard to make sense of what’s good and bad when you can barely mute the mob mentality screaming from different dietary camps:
Fat is the problem!
Carbs are the problem!
Sugar is the problem!
High fructose is the problem!
Gluten is the problem!
Throw in dairy, organic, and whatever is to come and it’s easy to see that the list goes on and on. Pretty soon no food will be safe.
The truth is many things can make us gain weight, and fat and sugar just happen to be two easy targets. Heck, too much protein will make you fat if you eat too much of it. Sounds like something your parents would say, but it’s that type of common sense approach that is all too frequently missing from dietary dogma.
The poison is always in the dose.
In the last 40 years, we’ve increased our consumption by about 450 calories per day. Of those 450 calories, about 200 comes from carbs, 200 from fats, and about 50 calories from artificial sweeteners.
Do you feel confident in picking out the culprit? Not to mention, the average energy expenditure on a daily basis has lowered nearly 150 calories. (Basically, we move less.)
When you look at things from a bigger picture it becomes clear: One problem isn’t the reason for the rise in obesity.
We eat more fat. We eat more sugar. We eat more in general. And we move less. The reasons for these behaviors are numerous, so to solve the problem we must stop looking for a single answer.
A Fat Loss Solution that Works
Finding healthier solutions starts with a more inclusive mindset. Dietary freedom and understanding can only occur when the “one thing to remove” mentality is eliminated.
Dietary dogma is a science of overreaction: The only result is dramatically pushing away from one type of food, only to fill our diets with other types of foods. The trend repeats itself over and over.
The low fat camp is eating too much sugar. The low carb/low sugar camp is eating too much fat. And everyone is eating too many calories because they are stuffing the gaps in their diet with partial nutrition that oftentimes leads to no consistency, overeating, or breaking the plan and binging…and then the vicious cycle repeats.
Some people have to avoid certain foods. Allergies and sensitivities are very real. But those problems are not experienced by everyone. If you feel better when you remove certain foods (even if you don’t have an allergy), then go for it. But when you believe that your weight is directly tied to a certain food, that’s when the overreaction starts and it’s just a tipping point.
The question is not “What food is the worst?” Instead, the focus should be on “What can I do better?”
Add in components that are missing and then reduce aspects that might be problematic. The process starts when we cease the negativity, finger pointing, and scapegoating, and start simplifying.
The principles of a good diet are universal: Eat most “real” foods. Avoid much of what is processed. Enjoy plants and fruits and if you eat animals, then enjoy those that are fed and raised in a healthy manner. There’s room for dessert and for packaged food. And most people need that, either for convenience or budget. Just make sure those foods are the smallest portion of what you eat.
In the end, a diet that includes some of the “bad stuff” and a lot of the good stuff will deliver results that will probably blow your mind. It won’t provide a food group to blame, but it will deliver a healthier body that is sustainable. And when that starts happening, that’s when the questions will stop.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.