Friday, February 15, 2013

Why I Eat Whole Fats Over Sugar

I have a confession to make: I don’t buy “low fat” foods. Like, ever. I order my lattes with whole milk and I buy Greek yogurt at the store. When I read the labels on the back of my food, I look for one thing above all else—and unlike many people, it’s not the amount of fat or calories. It’s the sugar content.

Low-fat options often contain more sugar.
Low-fat options often contain more sugar.
Image: Shutterstock
Certainly, I look at other things besides the sugar content (ingredients list and sodium come next), but that’s where I start. As someone who tries to be conscientious about my health and what I feed my body, I find that my main concern when choosing food is how much sugar I’m putting into my body.

Why? Fat has for a considerable amount of time been labeled as the culprit for making people… well, fat. That claim certainly has some basis to it. Fat contains more calories per gram than sugar does and it’s very nutrient dense, which means that large amounts of it can reside in small amounts of food.

That can be both good and bad. “Good” fats reside in many natural foods, like nuts, avocados, seeds, and dairy products. Our bodies need fat to function properly because it helps protect our hearts and organs, feeds our metabolism, and gives us energy. These natural fats also help sustain our bodies for longer and fill us up faster, which means that we can eat smaller portion sizes and last longer on them.

Nuts contain natural "good" fats that our bodies need
Nuts contain natural "good" fats that our bodies need.
Image: Shutterstock
Sugars can also occur naturally, but that’s not usually what I’m looking for when I read labels. I’m looking for added sugars, like high fructose corn syrup. It’s in an astounding amount of foods (Did you know ketchup has it? How about most Chinese foods?). Unfortunately, the more sweet foods we eat, the more we seem to crave sugar—and unlike natural fats, these calories are empty.

It’s not just a little sugar, either. An Arizona Raspberry Iced Tea contains 66 grams of sugar in a single can. Most sodas have similar amounts. These things often don’t fill us up, either, which means we eat several hundred calories’ worth of sugar only to get hungry again shortly.

Furthermore, daily consumption of sugar forces our bodies to constantly release insulin to manage blood-sugar levels and the storage of sugar. Besides having excess sugar turned into stored (bad) fat, sugar also causes a number of other health problems like tooth decay, iron and magnesium deficiencies, arthritis, sleep problems, digestive problems, and weight gain.

Of course, fat isn’t all good. If you gorge yourself on avocados, nuts, or coconut oil, you’ll probably gain some weight. But the point is, you’re less likely to do that than to overindulge on sugary foods.

Sugar is packed into sweet snacks like soda
Image from
Sugar is packed into sweet snacks like soda
One last thought: fat often helps give our foods flavor and substance. For example, I don’t like skim milk in part because it just tastes like water with a tiny bit of milk flavor mixed in. When you take that fat out, most of the time it ends up being replaced with something. Any guesses what that might be?

Bingo. It’s sugar, all right. Low-fat varieties of coffee creamers, flavored milk, and even yogurt often have higher sugar content than whole-fat ones. In my mind, I figure that while one may be higher in fat (and even calories), if it keeps me full for longer, I’ll be less likely to get hungry and have to snack before my next meal.

I don’t deny that there’s merit in watching our fat intake, and I do so especially with processed fats. But I do think that the mentality that “fat” is the main culprit for weight gain is a false one. In our sweet-toothed country, I point my finger at sugar.