Battle of the bad boys: fat v sugar - a deadly combination?

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 14 Nov, 2019

It seems that fat and sugar have been the twin 'bad boys' of diets forever – and the jury is still out: should we be most concerned with fat or carbs when it comes to health and weight loss?

Nutritionist Emma decided to test popular public opinion, and recently asked our members a simple question:

'In addition to calories, what nutrient do you look for first on food labels?'

Said Emma: "The results were split pretty evenly between fat and sugar, confirming that both of these nutrients are still top of mind when checking food labels. Several decades ago, fat was public enemy #1 thanks to emerging research into the link between saturated fat and heart disease and other health conditions. This gave rise to the popularity of low-fat diets for health and weight loss – 1980s 'Hip & Thigh Diet' was a classic.

"Fast forward a few years and very low-carb, high-fat diets became increasingly popular thanks to the Atkins plan. But health guidelines very much sided with low-fat as the preferred choice for overall health".

So – fat or sugar?

It's fair to say that sugar has had bad rap of late. But demonising one nutrient is not the answer to the UK's obesity problem. Amidst all the bad press, the message about sugars has got a little muddled. Our bodies work most efficiently when they have nutrients from all food groups, and this includes some level of sugar. Natural sugars found in fruit and milk products are not the problem. It's the added sugar found in cakes, biscuits, confectionary and some savoury products too (think tomato ketchup) that we need to try and reduce.

Carbs are made up of sugars, so it makes sense that a diet that restricts carbs will also have the effect of reducing how much sugar you are consuming – there's no need to exclude carbs completely.

Fat is what makes food taste good as it carries flavour. But when fat is removed from foods (for marketing claims like low fat or 0% fat), it is often replaced with sugar leaving us with the trade off – low fat vs sugar.

And so the debate continues. And as it stands, there is no clear 'winner'. The truth is that eating excessive calories, regardless of which nutrient, will lead to weight gain and the health issues associated with this. The key to weight loss success is to follow an approach that works for you and enables you to maintain a reduced calorie intake."

Information overload? Tips to help demystify:

Getting to grips with nutrients can be confusing: the front of pack traffic lights can feel like information overload.

Said Emma: "If your goal is weight loss, and you want to keep it simple – stick to tracking fat and calories. Fat is the most calorie dense nutrient with 9 calories per gram, compared to carbs (or protein) with just 4 calories per gram. So it makes sense that cutting down on your fat intake has a bigger impact on reducing total calories."

  1. Opt for plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grain carbs, lean protein sources, good fats and limited processed foods. This will naturally lead to lower fat and lower sugar choices.
  2. Monitor your overall fat intake, opting for low fat options of dairy and meats.
  3. Track your overall calorie intake. Reducing calories is proven to result in weight loss. And research strongly supports the positive effects of weight loss on health – regardless of how it is achieved.
  4. Lose weight sensibly and steadily to ensure it stays off. Include treats in your diet. Cutting out foods, crash diets and extreme weight loss rarely work in the long term.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.