Fat’s Not the Enemy: It's Sugar

By the time I was old enough to care about diets, the “low-fat” concept was beyond just a fad. It was universally accepted that fat was the culprit of weight and health issues, and low- and no-fat options were ubiquitous in the grocery store.

Today, low-fat isn’t something I tend to see on the shelves as often. It seems our collective consciousness has gradually accepted that some fat is good—think eggs or avocados. But all that anti-fat hype wasn’t just general misinformation; it was a conspiracy. As it turns out, it was the sugar industry that pointed its fingers at fat as the culprit for obesity and health issues. They were trying to cover up the fact that refined sugar is a much greater problem when it comes to health and wellness. But the secret's finally out.

This is not the only conspiracy that has affected the general public's wellbeing. When America’s cities were growing rapidly in the 20th century, companies like General Motors pushed for buses as a major form of transportation, rather than trolleys, trains, or subways. Although it can be argued that buses were less expensive to operate than the existing streetcars, there’s no doubt GM and other companies were buying and shutting down trolley systems for self-interested reasons, too. That’s why even America’s largest city, New York, now has an insufficient bus system serving many of its neighborhoods instead of something more practical like streetcars (it also has an extensive subway system, but many parts of the city are still underserved). The fat-versus-sugar issue is very similar: capitalistic values took precedence over practicality and the American public suffered as a result.

It was revealed in a recent issue of The New York Times that our false sugar knowledge started when the Sugar Research Foundation paid Harvard scientists to publish a review that made fat look like the culprit of heart health issues, rather than sugar. Although published in 1967, that review held sway over the nation for decades. Fat was only un-vilified in the last 10 years or so. As it turns out, excess sugar causes problematic spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels (it sounds so obvious now, doesn’t it?) and contributes to long-term health problems far more than fat does. But many of us still have a mental aversion to high-fat foods.

It can be hard to let go of the ideas we grew up with, but if you’re still clinging to an anti-fat mentality, the best thing you can do for your health is cut down on sugar instead. Margarine is really no better for us than butter (and olive oil, of course, is better than both). Consumption of reduced-fat products has actually been associated with weight gain while full-fat products were not. Sugar, on the other hand, has been repeatedly linked to weight issues and long-term health problems associated with things like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Instead of looking for low- or no-fat on the label, choose healthy, full-fat options instead. Avocados, nuts, and coconut oil are among good plant-based sources of fat, and full-fat milk and cheese are fine, just not in excess. Focus your diet heavily around plants, and don’t be afraid of fat from natural sources like salmon, too. Just avoid packaged sweets and sodas, as well as refined breads and carbs that have high levels of sugar. Your body will thank you!