Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Sugar vs. fat- which is the real culprit? And which studies should you believe?

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Saturated fat has gotten a bad rap. Cristin Kearns, a dentist-turned-researcher, discovered that in 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) paid investigators at Harvard an impressive amount of money ($48,000 in today’s dollars) to produce research demonstrating that saturated fat—not sugar—raises the risk of heart disease. After these studies exculpated sugar as a contributor to coronary artery disease in the 1960s and 70s, the SRF, in conjunction with other packaged food manufacturers, began to add large amounts of sugar to many different types of foods in order to increase their sales. To check out the full article by Kearns, go to http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2548255.

Disclosure laws in 1967 didn’t require statements that named funders behind scientific studies. Even if the foundation who sponsored this research was named, in this case the Harvard Fund and Nutrition Foundation, it would not have been clear that they used investigators paid by the Sugar Research Foundation. Since that time, transparency laws have become more stringent and and require more specific disclosure of industry-sponsored studies.

Another good example of biased research was a so-called “obesity study” conducted by an agency called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which was funded by Coca-Cola. Their proposed main goal was to conduct research into the causes of obesity. The organization claimed that lack of exercise, rather than an unhealthy diet, causes weight gain. This was an idea shunned by so many, that by November 2015, GEBN ceased operation. Most educated people know that the combination of a healthy diet, low amounts of sugar, low to moderate amounts of fat, and exercise is the key to maintaining a healthy weight.

The content of these studies begs the question of which has more adverse effects on maintaining a healthy weight and being free of diseases: fat, or sugar? When it’s taken out of context, the perception is that all food fats are dangerous, but we can’t look at sugar and saturated fat independently. Moderation is key. Sugar is fine in small quantities, but when consumed in excess, it contributes to obesity and increases stress on our digestive system because it’s harder to metabolize. The excess sugar found in soft drinks and desserts increases your risk factor for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease; thus, consuming less is a good idea. In fact, to reduce the risk of heart disease, guidelines should focus particularly on reducing intake of concentrated sugars, specifically the fructose-containing sugars like sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup found in ultra-processed foods and beverages. For more information about evidence that added sugars and refined carbohydrates may be even worse for you than saturated fats, go to http://www.onlinepcd.com/article/S0033-0620(15)30025-6/abstract.

Marion Nestle, a prominent author and nutritionist from New York University, discusses in an article how research has been skewed in favor of sugar and against fats. Go to http://www.foodpolitics.com/2016/09/sugar-industry-funding-of-research-1967-style-with-many-lessons-for-today/ to learn read it and learn more.

This brings up many questions. Should an industry with vested interests in their topic of research conduct and fund studies? If so, what are the parameters? Are sugar and fat equally responsible for heart disease and various types of cancers? What does the evidence say about their respective roles, and why has diabetes skyrocketed since this seminal study was published with the support of the sugar industry?

Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, said  “Academic conflict-of-interest rules have changed significantly since the 1960s, but the industry papers were a reminder of why research should be supported by public funding rather than depending on industry funding.  Given the data we have today, we have shown the refined carbohydrates and especially sugar-sweetened beverages are risk factors for cardiovascular disease, but that the type of dietary fat is also very important.” Hence, both saturated fat and sugar are complicit; limiting both is your best bet for keeping your heart healthy and your weight under control.

There are two essential takeaways from today’s blog. First, beware of food industry funded research. It will likely favor the study’s funders and include less emphasis on true findings. Second, when reading results from widely-touted studies, be sure to check who originated the study. Last, take the advice of Marion Nestle, one of nutrition’s leading researchers and author of many books, including “Food Politics.” She states conclusively that “we would all be healthier eating less sugary foods and fewer fatty meats.

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