November 14, 2013

Every week we read some expert telling us to avoid “sugary fatty foods”. This is a confusing catch-all phrase that sounds sensible but may not be as helpful as it aims to be.

Let me explain…

I’ll start with a reductionist approach. All foods provide a combination of macro-nutrients – carbohydrate, protein and fat. Of course some also provide fibre, vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients.

If you’ve read our past blogs we maintain that weight loss in the human body is NOT about “calories in versus calories out” or more simply “Eat less and exercise more”. Weight loss is all about how our bodies absorb calories, store them and use them – all which vary from person to person.

Now, how your body absorbs, stores and uses calories is dictated by various hormones that are influenced by the macro-nutrients in foods. For weight loss we need to consider the macro-nutrients and their effect on our hormones, and not simply the calories they contain.

Many people seek to avoid fat, but dietary fat, by itself, does not stimulate the fat-storing hormones. In fact, fat helps to satisfy the appetite and so we eat less. Protein, unless eaten in excess, does not stimulate fat-storing hormones and instead helps with satiety (feeling fuller for longer). All carbohydrates, including sugar, stimulate the hormones that lead to fat storage.

This is why a diet low in sugar and with low enough carbohydrate for your body’s personal tolerance, and with enough protein and fat, makes losing weight easier: the fat-storing hormones are not being stimulated, the hunger hormones are reduced, and the satiety hormones are activated. This combination of hormones means that we feel full and satisfied and we don’t store fat.

So what about the advice to avoid ‘fatty sugary foods’? Is that all wrong?

When you combine carbohydrates with fats, you can get a fattening food. Think of the obvious: deep-fried sugar-coated donuts. To add insult these are typically fried in polyunsaturated vegetable oil – high in inflammatory Omega 6.  What about a pasta carbonara? High carbohydrate pasta combined with high fat sauce – and often eaten with garlic bread supplying even more carbohydrate.

Unfortunately, most media coverage blames the fat rather than the carbohydrate in these foods, leading people to the wrong conclusion that ‘fat makes us fat’. The reality is that carbohydrates make us fat – when eaten to excess.

It is recommended that people start dramatically reducing their sugar intake from all sources, including carbohydrates. Women should consume no more than the equivalent of 6 teaspoons of sugar per day from all sources and men no more than 9 teaspoons. The average Western diet, filled with processed foods, carbohydrates, and ‘sugary fatty foods’ provides more than 20 teaspoons of sugar per day.

So for those wanting to lose weight, cutting out processed and ‘sugary fatty foods’, and replacing these with fresh foods will go a long way towards lasting weight control and improved health outcomes.