Last night, my wife and I had an interesting and unexpected nutritional experience. Craving something sweet, we dug through the cabinets and came up with a box of fat-free/sugar-free chocolate pudding. That seemed promising and, though we normally avoid artificially fat-free/sugar-free foods, desperate times call for desperate measures.
It was a disaster. Flavor-wise, the pudding was fine. But both our stomachs immediately protested. My wife couldn’t even finish her serving. And this got me thinking. I’ve written in the past about the lie that is fat-free food so I wasn’t totally surprised by these results. Still, the severity of it startled me. So, here’s the question: What did this do to us and when is it better to avoid these so-called “healthy” variations? Is there such a thing as unhealthy health foods?
The Truth About Sugar and Fat
Food manufacturers are very aware of buzzwords that sell their products and use them liberally. Among the most popular, and time-honored, of these are those featured on the aforementioned pudding box: Sugar-free and fat-free. But do these features automatically make a food more healthy? Should we always do what we can to avoid sugars and fat?
That all depends on you and your goals, especially when it comes to sugar. This oft-maligned ingredient comes in many forms but is always used as a sweetener (obviously) and is always a simple carbohydrate. It’s classification as “simple” means – among other things – that sugar has a large and rapid impact on your blood sugar levels. In the case of people with diabetes or at risk for the condition, it’s extremely important to keep your blood sugar at healthy levels.
For athletes, however, strategic use of these simple carbs can be a powerful weapon. Not only does sugar provide a boost of energy, insulin spikes – soon after exercise – encourage muscle growth. So, proper timing of simple carbs – in otherwise healthy people – can actually be a very good thing.
Likewise, fat has been seen as a dietary villain for several decades now. Recent research, though, has shattered these notions. Fat, like protein and carbs, is a nutrient that is vital to proper function of the human body. Despite its reputation, dietary fat does not automatically create body fat. It also does not immediately poison your heart or harden your arteries. In fact, certain types of fat have been associated with improved brain function, cardiovascular health and weight loss.
Clearly, then, sugars and fats do not totally deserve their bad reputations. When proper choices are made in the right context and in moderation, sugar and fat can have a place in the athlete’s diet.
But there’s also a darker side to artificially fat- and sugar-free food than just being unnecessary.
What’s Really Happening
Similar to their natural counterpart, artificial sweeteners have also come under fire in recent years. Various claims have been made about the effects of these substances, including an increased risk of cancer, with mixed results in the lab. One thing that is known about artificial sweeteners, though, is that they do not actually help you lose weight. Which is especially concerning because most artificial sweeteners are essentially calorie-free. Artificial sweeteners have been linked with obesity, diabetes and increased food cravings in high-quality studies.
Fat-free foods are also achieved through some odd means. When it occurs in foods, fat does several things. First, it makes food delicious. Second, fat acts as a thickener and gives food texture. When the fats are removed, a substance needs to be added that will replace flavor and give the resultant food a natural feel. Various additives are used to accomplish this, including fat substitutes. These chemicals are particularly strange because, although they chemically resemble fat, your body can’t actually digest them. Essentially, these fat-like additives pass through your body totally unharmed which can cause all sorts of digestive discomfort.
The Bottom Line
If you are trying to avoid sugars and fats, it’s best to do so by choosing foods that are naturally lacking. At the same time, both sugar and fat can have a place in a healthy diet when eaten in moderation.