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Experts Say Sugar Is Not Fattening
Densie Webb, Medical Writer
Sugar Busters, Doctor Atkins' New Diet Revolution, The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet: All books that say cutting out carbohydrates, especially sugar, is the true path to weight loss. And yet, experts say it's time to find a new path because they say sugar itself does not make you fat.
Then why all the focus on sugar? It tastes good. The proverbial sweet tooth is something we're all born with. But there is no evidence that sugar is particularly fattening. In fact, research shows the opposite is true: People who consume the most sugar actually are the least likely to be obese. This is probably the result of what experts call the "fat-sugar seesaw": As sugar intake goes up, fat intake goes down--a fact that was recently confirmed by researchers from Michigan State University at East Lansing at the 1999 meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity (held November 14-18, 1999, in Charleston, South Carolina).
Research shows that eating a high-fat diet will, indeed, make you fat. An overabundance of fat in the diet is more likely to be stored as body fat than an overabundance of protein or carbohydrates, even if it's in the form of sugar.
Overproduction of insulin (one of the hormones responsible for regulating blood sugar) is a favorite target of diet books, being blamed for as much as 75% of overweight problems. But insulin experts like Gerald Reaven, MD, professor of medicine at Stanford University, says it just isn't so. And the American Diabetes Association has said that a modest amount of sugar as part of a meal plan is acceptable as long as metabolic balance and weight are maintained.
Part of the reason behind all the finger pointing at sugar stems from the indisputable fact that Americans are eating more sugar than ever and, coincidentally, are fatter than ever. But what's often overlooked in that seemingly logical argument is that we are also less physically active than ever. So we're less active, but we're eating more calories and fat.
"There are few populations around the world eating a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that have a significant problem with obesity," says James O. Hill, PhD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. Moreover, he says, a high-carbohydrate diet actually appears to reduce the likelihood of overeating, rather than increasing it.
Don't Just Sit ThereDespite the fact that the body slightly prefers to build fat with fat rather than with carbohydrates, the concept of calories in, calories out remains valid, says Hill. The more calories you take in (from any source), the more likely you are to store them as fat. Unless, of course, you burn them off with physical activity, which surveys show most of us don't do. The 1996 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity found that 60% of adults in the US were not regularly active and that 25% engaged in no physical activity at all. That, says Hill, is the real problem few of us are willing to face up to, a much bigger problem than sugar intake. Nutritionists point out that the main problem with sugar is that it is devoid of nutrients and crowds out more nutritious foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables--not that it packs on extra pounds.
Hill recommends a high-carbohydrate (55-60% of calories), low-fat (20-25% of calories) diet as the best approach for weight loss. That, plus regular exercise--whether it's walking, jogging, playing tennis, or simply mowing the lawn or playing tag with your kids--is the real key to weight loss, regardless of whether your diet contains sugar.
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Densie Webb is a nutritionist who writes about food and health. She is based in Austin, Texas.