High cholesterol and fats, we’ve long been told, are the enemy of good health. They’ve been linked with high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack and, of more importance to this discussion, increased ‘bad’ cholesterol, which can also lead to stroke. But do fats deserve their bad rap? Or should sugar be facing the dietary firing squad? We follow the fat vs sugar debate.
In South Africa, about 300 people die of a stroke every day. We know that stroke is linked with raised cholesterol. And the foods that raise ‘bad’ cholesterol, we’ve been told, are those that are high in saturated fats. So for years we’ve been encouraged to buy our everyday products in fat-free or low-fat versions, or even ‘healthier’ alternatives such as margarine.
‘Pish-tush!’ say many modern scientists. Saturated fats are far better for us than processed trans fats, those found in margarine, ready-made foods, biscuits and cakes, salad dressings and other sauces (check the labels!). Trans fats are in fact responsible for raising LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol, they state. Not all scientists agree, but the link between trans fats, artery-clogging cholesterol, coronary heart disease and stroke appears stronger than ever.
The answer lies in moderation, as always. Don’t eat too much fat of any sort. But a little of the unadulterated stuff (olive oil, real butter, meat, avocado pears) appears to be better than their equivalent ‘adulterated’ options. (Are you whole-food fans nodding?)
Enter the third factor in this discussion – sugar. Fat adds flavour. So when fats in processed foods are reduced, much of the flavour is lost. What is added to bump up the taste? Exactly! It’s sugar. The fat vs sugar debate continues.
The average South African consumes 25 kilograms of sugar and similar sweeteners a year, according to a study released by the Human Sciences Research Council. That’s 17 teaspoons of sugar a day! Of course, consumption rates vary from person to person, but there’s little doubt that these empty kilojoules are impacting our health. This fact was confirmed by a team of researchers from Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute and Albert Einstein College of Medicine who were trying to discover whether saturated fats or refined sugars were worse for heart health. Their results, published in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, suggest that, after years of believing fat was the culprit, the offender could have been sugar all along.
Some sugar facts in relation cholesterol
- Sugar is a carbohydrate that provides energy. It has no other nutritional benefits.
- Naturally occurring sugars in milk, fruit, vegetables, starches, grains, honey and most plant-based foods are sufficient to meet your energy requirements.
- Most of the sugars added to foods by manufacturers, cooks or consumers simply contribute to health issues such as a constant release of the hormone insulin, which can lead to serious problems such as insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, type II diabetes, an increase in ‘bad’ cholesterol and obesity. (A single can of sugar-sweetened fizzy drink contains 10-plus teaspoons of sugar and no health benefits.)
- A low-sugar diet helps reduce blood glucose levels, kilograms and triglycerides – and cholesterol.