Fat free or sugar free - what should we be eating?

Back in the last century, there was a big turf war in nutrition about the cause of the increasing incidence of obesity and cardiovascular disease. In the UK there was Dr John Yudkin, the author of Pure, White and Deadly – how sugar is killing us and what we can do to stop it. In the US there was Ancel Keys who, on the basis of some dubious research, was pushing the line that fat, and in particular cholesterol and saturated fat, was the cause of heart attacks.

In the end, Keys won out – a decision that had little to do with scientific research, and lots to do with money, politics and power.

So Western nations embarked on a prolonged experiment of low fat eating. Margarine replaced butter, we ate lean meat with all the fat trimmed off, and the food industry responded to the call by producing a vast array of low fat products.

The problem with removing the fat from foods was that much of the flavour went with it, so the fat was replaced by additives to improve the taste. And the number one additive? Sugar. Except it wasn't always called sugar on the list of ingredients. At last count there were almost 100 alternative names for sugars used by the food industry.

For the past 30-40 years we have consumed an increasing amount of sugar (soft drinks, sports drinks, cordials, fruit juice, confectionery) and sugar-containing processed foods (breakfast cereals, fruit yoghurts, muesli bars, sauces etc). Australians now eat an average of 16 teaspoons of sugar a day in addition to the natural sugars found in fruit and dairy products. Teenagers consume considerably more.

So what has happened to our health over that period of time? Rates of overweight and obesity have steadily climbed. Two thirds of adult Australians and a quarter of our children are now overweight or obese. The incidence of Type 2 diabetes is steadily rising and it is thought that up to 2 million Australians may be suffering from this condition with all its disastrous health consequences. The incidence of dental caries and non-alcoholic liver disease is also steadily increasing.

It is no coincidence that as our sugar intake has increased, so has our chronic disease rates.

The campaign SugarByHalf aims to reduce the average intake of added sugars by Australians by a half. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that the ideal amount of sugar intake is no more than 6 teaspoons a day, so halving our intake will get us close to that figure.

So how are we going to reduce our sugar intake?

The first step is to make people aware of the problem of sugar and give them the tools to reduce their intake. Soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and cordials are by far the biggest contributor to excess sugar consumption in this country, especially among children and teenagers.

So a good first step would be to eliminate soft drinks from your and your children's diets. Water is the best alternative. We are fortunate in this country to have high quality tap water in most areas, and if you don't like tap water you can always drink bottled water. Unless you are an elite athlete, you do not need to use sports drinks or energy drinks.

Apart from replacing sugary drinks with water, what else can I do?

Approximately 80 per cent of all processed food in this country has some type of added sugar, so learn to read labels and if a sugar sounding substance is in the first two or three ingredients then keep away. Similarly, if the amount of sugar in the list of nutrients in the food label is greater than 5 grams per 100 gm, then keep away.

Replace fruit yoghurts with unsweetened Greek yoghurt, and try pieces of fruit, cheese sticks, carrot sticks and nuts as snacks instead of muesli bars and chocolates. Swap sugary dressing and sauces for olive oil based dressings and low sugar sauces.

There are lots of simple, tasty measures you can take to reduce sugar intake.

One of the interesting things that happens when you reduce your sugar intake is that you become less hungry. You don't get that big surge in your blood sugar levels followed soon after by a big drop, which means you are hungry again a couple of hours after your high sugar meal or drink. So a low sugar diet is much easier to maintain than a low calorie diet where you always feel very hungry.

If that all seems too complicated, then stick to JERF – just eat real food.

Instead of processed foods full of sugar and unhealthy fats, eat real foods such as vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts and olive oil. You will enjoy your food, but still lose weight, feel more energetic and improve your cardiac risk factors.

So it is a no-brainer – sugar-free is more beneficial than fat–free.