Price Tag: How much for the Low-Fat/Low-Sugar?

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By offering the promise of a healthy life and a slimmer silhouette, low-fat products and artificial sweeteners seem to be the answer to all the years of struggling to fit in those jeans. It is believed that the science of nutrition is complex and with thousands of research papers being published daily, it may become even more confusing for many of us to judge the certainty of any revised guidelines. It was the case in the 1970s when research linked fatty foods with the incidence of heart disease. We used to consume a high-fat diet with whole milk, rich sauces, full-fat salad dressing, peanut butter and meats. But when this eating pattern came under persistent attacks, food manufacturers had to respond to them and started to replace saturated fats with hydrogenated ones. Ultimately, they had to increase the level of sugars so that the taste of products remains pleasant.

Doctors urged people to cut down their consumption of fat in the diet by removing meat, poultry, milk, nuts and fried foods, omitting the fact that not all fats are bad for us. Conventional wisdom makes us believe that cutting back on fats would make us lean and healthy. By 1990s, all dietary guidelines have been modified and fats were being substituted by 6-11 servings of grain products. The original Food Guide Pyramid still makes me feel dizzy as I recalled my early University days in understanding the reason behind those recommendations.

Hydrogenated fats are found mostly in margarine spread and are known to be the main culprits of stroke, diabetes and heart disease due to high levels of trans fats compared to saturated fats present in red meat (with a lower incidence). Research further discovered that a low-fat product contained almost 6 times the level of sugars and additives that its full-fat equivalent. Now, to respond to this new dilemma, artificial sweeteners came in as the magic bullets to solve the issue. As with everything else, there is more to artificial sweeteners than just its effects on weight. You must have heard that artificial sweeteners are known to be disrupting the levels of serotonin in the brain and thus leading to psychotic disorders. They even play with insulin secretions in your body, even though they do not increase blood sugars, thus causing inflammation and decreasing immunity. But what I’ve learnt with time with those artificial sweeteners and additives are scarier than what I’ve imagined. Quite recently, research is being targeted to those additives being linked to cancer. Even though the findings are still at a preliminary stage and not much supported by many human epidemiology or mechanistic studies, the links which are slowly but surely being established are frightening.

People who consume hyper-sensitive sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharin) may create an overstimulation of sugar receptors which actually stimulates their brain to crave for more sugar and sometimes make them find less intensely sweet foods like fruits and vegetables less appealing. These “low-fat” and “low-sugar” products play another trick on your brain. They prevent you from associating sweetness with excess calories and that’s where we tend to fool ourselves while eating. Come on, we all know that friend who eats Briani with a bottle of diet coke.

You must be even more confused about what to eat or drink after reading the above. Then what should we do? Go back to sugars? Enjoy the grilled lamb chops again? Well, the science of nutrition might not be entirely complicated after all. Once you realized that we cannot always replace the “natural” by the “artificial”, you will be able to make cleverer choices. Sometimes it’s not fully the Food Industry’s fault for marketing these products but ours, for demanding and continuously buying them. Most importantly, reducing total fat intake has never been associated with lower rates of cardiovascular diseases and weight gain whereas increasing intake of good cholesterol did. So if you choose to consume a high-fat diet with olive oil, avocado, fresh fish, lots of nuts and even full-fat milk, there’s a higher chance of you living a longer life.

Yogurt is another good example. Have you ever wondered why traditional Greek yogurt became so popular? I can assure you, it’s nothing related to the blessings of Greek Gods. It’s rather the richer texture and sublime “mouth-feel” created when natural fats are present in any food. It is true that higher straining produces that effect but the smoother texture do come from the use of full-fat milk used by the Greeks. You will be definitely better-off eating a full-fat plain yogurt rather than a low-fat/low-sugar variety. I do sincerely believe that if dairy companies didn’t go so extreme on cutting fats, the yogurt would have been much more palatable without having to add so many sugar.

It’s high time to accept that focusing exclusively on fats and restrictive dieting is not working. One explanation that can be hypothesized is that our body reacts very badly to calorie reduction by being a rebel and making it extremely difficult for most people to maintain weight loss unless you have a very rapid metabolism. Calorie restriction is useless over the long-term and an appropriate weight loss regime should focus on the type of foods we eat and not only amount. People spend their time thinking that fats are the culprit to look out for but it’s not all that matters.

Sometimes focusing on cutting your red meat and choosing lean meats are not enough and even not entirely dangerous as are those processed meats where everything seems to be hidden. That’s where food labels become so important. You need to be able to look for words like “added sugars” and “additives” or any symbol (E or other alphabet) in your food labels that you don’t understand why they are in your food.

My keynote advice to you will be to eat as natural as possible and to eliminate all possible additives including added sugars. Comme quoi, my grandmother’s fish curry and Dahi were not that bad.

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