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Fat vs. Sugar - Which Is Worse?

Fat vs. Sugar - Which Is Worse?

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Several high-profile contests have captured the country's attention in 2008….Obama vs. McCain…the U.S. Olympic Team vs. the world….Batman vs. the Joker…but another less well publicized showdown is taking place that's perhaps just as important. This battle is being waged not in political polls, swimming pools, or on Gotham’s streets, but on nutrition labels everywhere.

Fat and sugar have a reputation for being two of the biggest dietary dangers, but which one of the two should you try hardest to avoid? What exactly do they bring to the (kitchen) table?

Like two heavyweight prizefighters duking it out, both opponents have withstood numerous blows and are trying to land that knockout punch. The stakes are high: the loser of this match will face the full brunt of the nutrition-conscious public's wrath.

The term "food fight" just took on a whole new meaning.

A History of Violence?

For almost 30 years, ever since a tenuous connection was made between dietary fat consumption and an increased risk of heart disease, fat has been vilified as the biggest, meanest, most fearsome nutritional foe. Products with "low-fat" and "no-fat" plastered on their labels became much more than just a temporary fad. The low-fat mantra became so ingrained in the national psyche that it seemed as though many Americans would have preferred to face Mike Tyson in the ring to drinking whole milk.

A Real Whopper

In a 2002 New York Times article entitled "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?", Gary Taubes writes, "The low-fat-is-good-health dogma represents reality as we have come to know it, and the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in research trying to prove its worth." Taubes goes on to argue that prior to the National Institute of Health's 1984 recommendation to limit fat intake, the evidence in support of low-fat diets was "stubbornly ambiguous" and "the case was settled not by new science but by politics." He recounts how four years earlier, Phil Handler, the president of the National Academy of Sciences at the time, went before Congress and asked, "What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?"

However, after nearly three decades, it appears as though the vast nutritional experiment on low-fat eating may finally be coming to an end. Although the low-fat guidelines once initiated by the government and the National Health Institute surely represented what they thought were in the public's best interests, nutritional science has reaffirmed that certain kinds of fat are indeed vitally important to a healthy diet.

In Fat's Corner…

The website for the McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois states that fat is crucial for "normal growth and development, energy, absorbing certain vitamins, and maintaining cell membranes." The United States Department of Agriculture now recommends that fat make up 20 percent to 35 percent of daily calorie intake, and some nutritionists encourage an even higher percentage of fat consumption. Heather Fleming, a nutrition consultant for Conscious Nutrition, recommends two servings of healthy fat per meal, for a total of six servings per day. Ms. Fleming says that healthy fats are essential and are like "oil for the body…Our cells are made of phospholipids, and that's where the healthy fats…go to reenergize the cells."

Build a "Monopoly" of Healthy Fats in Your Diet - Eat Mono and Poly!

The key lies in choosing foods that are high in healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as avocadoes, olive oil, salmon, and nuts. Although a 2008 article by John Tierney in the New York Times, entitled "Good News for Saturated Fat," discusses a study that may even begin to clear the name for the saturated fat found in meat and cheese, the unsaturated fats in fish, nuts, seeds, and plant oils are still considered by most experts to be the healthiest choices.

The Harvard School of Public Health gives a succinct breakdown on their website: "The 'good' fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—lower disease risk." Trans fats, on the other hand, should be avoided as much as possible, as "even small amounts of trans fat in the diet can have harmful health effects." Most trans fats are man-made and are often found in cookies, chips, margarine, and other processed foods.

Despite strong scientific support for the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated varieties, many Americans are still unaware that not all fats are bad. A 2008 study by the International Food Information Council shows that more Americans think polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats are "not healthful" (43 percent and 38 percent of those surveyed) than "healthful" (23 percent and 28 percent). More emphasis and education on healthy fat is necessary in order to reverse the inaccurate perceptions of fat that were formed due to years of misinformation and confusion.

Coming Up….Round 2

Fat has proven to be a worthier opponent than perhaps many expected. It's certainly not going down without a fight. Sugar is on the ropes….but is it down for the count? Round 2 will decide…

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