Biochemically speaking, sugar is a simple carbohydrate. As far as the human body is concerned, the sugar molecule of importance is glucose. Yes there are other sugars in nature - cellulose, galactose, ribose, fructose, etc, but in terms of human physiology, it is glucose that fuels cells - and also fructose, which is directly converted to glucose upon entry into any human cell. While I understand that culturally we have come to know sugar as the processed white stuff that we stir in coffee or bake into the cookies, sugar is synonymous with carbohydrate. Going forward, know that the two words, sugar and carbohydrates/carbs, will be used interchangeably.
The Hidden Secret of Junk Food
We know that a main ingredient of junk food is some derivative of sugar. Whether corn, sugar cane, sugar beet, agave, coconut, or any heavily processed and refined sweetener, the active sweet-tasting chemical compound can be called sugar. Specifically, this molecule is glucose, fructose, or a combination of the two (sucrose). These “natural” sweeteners are indeed derived from nature, which enables them to retain our beloved “n” word. Though they are quite literally stripped of any substance other than glucose/fructose (sugar), whether it be fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, or any other type of micronutrient. I should note that the “sugars” that contain the most nutrition are coconut sugar, date sugar, maple syrup/sugar, and honey. Therefore these sweeteners are indeed preferential, given that in addition to a sweet taste, they actually do provide some nutritional and health benefits.
Processed, refined, and mostly rancid fats that sneak their way into standard American mouths just as sneakily as does sugar. Fortunately, the whistle has been blown on trans-fats, which are now largely making their way out of the food supply. Yet in place of these molecules flows all sorts of other low quality processed fats like soy oil, canola oil, corn oil, cotton seed oil, coconut oil, lard, etc. If you know anything about GMO foods, you understand the importance of staying away from products with soy, canola, corn and cotton seed oil, but it is not just conventionally grown and processed fats that are detrimental.
It’s important to remember that the body utilizes sugars/carbohydrates/glucose as fuel. Biochemically speaking a spoonful of white powdered stuff fuels the body through the same mechanisms as an apple, a potato, or a glass of fresh pressed juice. Of course the latter items also have an abundance of vitamins and micronutrients which further optimize health and metabolism, making the most nutrient dense fuel sources preferable.
Sweet Fat Will Kill You
As we know, the pendulum has swung with low carb diets gaining popularity, again, this time in more restrictive ways than ever through a ketogenic style diet, aiming to cut carbs down to 5-10% of calories. While this is certainly not the way the human body is intended to be fueled, it might be slightly healthier than a standard American diet that is filled with processed junk, containing large amounts of processed sugars AND fats.
One thing that happens when we combine fat (specifically saturated fat) and sugar, is insulin resistance. Fat that is absorbed into cells interferes with proper insulin signaling which results in insulin resistance and elevated levels of sugar in the blood stream. We know this to be the underlying cause of type 2 diabetes (and many other chronic health conditions). Since we see the sign of high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), it is easy to point the finger at sugar for being the cause of this issue. But, we have to look a little deeper to see that it is that fat that prevents sugar from being properly metabolized to create cellular energy.
Another thing that happens has to do with the simple metabolic machine of our body. Depending upon our activity level, we require a certain amount of fuel to move, stay awake, keep our heart beating and our brain thinking. Our body always burns carbohydrates/sugar as fuel when it is available. Carbohydrates are clean burning fuel that provide an optimal source of cellular energy required to stay alive, not to mention heal and repair the body. If a meal contains carbohydrates and fat, the carbohydrates will be used to create the energy, and fat will be stored for later, assuming there is a caloric excess. This comes down to the simple fact that carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source, and remains true regardless of the quality of carbohydrates or fat that are consumed.
Another thing that happens in the context of a high fat and sugar diet brings us to focus in on the liver. Among so many other things, the liver is responsible for producing bile required to start the digestion and breakdown of fat in the intestines. Additionally, the liver is a place where excess carbohydrates are stored as glycogen to be broken down and used as fuel when not eating. On top of this, we know how important the liver is for filtering our blood, processing toxins, and maintaining a resilient immune system. If constantly called on to secrete bile while also working to store glycogen, filter blood, and process toxins, our liver is going to be left tired and sluggish. We will no longer be able to effectively process and eliminate fat from our diet, resulting in a fatty liver, or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is an epidemic in our culture. This sets the stage for a whole host of chronic metabolic and immunologic related diseases.
So Fat or Carbs?
Nature doesn’t make us choose one macronutrient over another. Every single whole food that comes from the earth contains an optimal blend of carbohydrate, fat, protein, and fiber as well as the miraculous synergistic blend of vitamins and phytochemicals. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are readily active and bioavailable in their natural state, requiring no additional processed fat (oil), or animal products for optimal health. Micronutrients are dependent upon soil health and biodiversity of our ecosystem, a whole other can of worms for another day. We don’t need to focus on carbs or fats, we just need to focus on whole plant foods.
So, sugar/carbs don’t make you fat. Fat makes you fat, while also deteriorating your health in the process. I’m not saying that we should fear fat and be diligent about reducing dietary fat intake. It is unnecessary to count calories, macros, vitamins, or any other metric to lose weight and sustain optimal health. Rather eat enough whole plant foods to satiate your appetite, which is actually regulated through such a natural diet. A whole food plant based diet is naturally low in fat, and low in calories. I’m suggesting that we not get swept into the trendy fat trap. There’s no reason to cook with oils, which are pure fat, or consume animal products, which are just comprised of various amounts of mostly saturated fat and protein. When we replace calorically dense foods such as these with nutrient dense foods such as plants, we create an environment within that effortlessly promotes health.