The debate about sugar is all around us. Everywhere you look. First, it’s fine, then it’s god awful, then it’s not the worst thing ever? There is a lot of controversy in the media, which generally offers garbage advice, but even within the scientific community, there are PRO and ANTI sugar camps. What sugar (and most everything, actually) boils down to is context. Context is king.
In our three-part series, assistant coach Gillian and admin Karina debunk all things sugar. In the first part of this series, Gillian covers the sugar and high fructose corn syrup myth and drives home the message of overall calorie balance and moderation, cited with research. But what happens when calorie balance and context are lost?
In the second part of the series, Karina dives into how chronically high levels of sugar intake coupled with lifestyle factors may become toxic, leading many to find themselves with metabolic disease. Lastly, they sum it up in a practical article detailing lifestyle modifications and a ‘do’s and don’ts cheat sheet’ per se on how to optimize health, longevity and physique goals while also enjoying some treats. Because#treatyoself
– Laurin Conlin, Founder and coach | @laurinconlin
Sugar and Body Composition
Some of our country’s biggest issues concern weight gain and the rapid decline of our health. Not surprisingly, the way that our media has promoted weight loss methods and myths to the public is not ideal. You’ve most likely seen magazines at the checkout line with new headlines each week about the ‘secret’ to weight loss. These ‘fat-blasting’ diets keep popping up and most that are popularized is greatly due to how they are praised or demonized in our media. Fad diets promoted through fear tactics (fears that ‘x’ makes us fat) set many up for failure.
No part of the diet has gone without some kind of negative backlash from consumers. First carbs make you fat, then fat makes you fat, and the list goes on… More recently, sugar has been labeled one of the worst things for our health. Specifically, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has received possibly the worst reputation in the past few years. Look anywhere, and you’ll find plenty of sources that claim that sugar will kill you. I know; it seems a bit intense but remember contest is key. However (thankfully), research has helped clear the air on the relationship between sugar, HFCS and weight gain.
If you aren’t familiar with the debate around HFCS, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published an article in 2004 with the intention of stirring up controversy. Bray and others made the claim that our increased use of HFCS in beverages mirrors our increase in obesity, concluding that the rise in HFCS consumption plays a key role in the obesity epidemic. The authors mention how drinks sweetened with sugar were linked with higher caloric intake and weight gain. What they failed to consider here was that the total caloric intake would be the main culprit, and instead pointed at HFCS as the main factor causing obesity. (1) This is problematic in that we cannot claim the presence of cause and effect here. The addition of HFCS in more processed foods and beverages in the past few decades have to lead us to consume more calories, which can then be correlated with weight gain. Added sugars are in a majority of foods, and can be easily overeaten if we are not mindful. Correlation does not always equal causation, especially if we are looking at the obesity epidemic.
Since this 2004 publication, many studies have been conducted exploring HFCS and sucrose (table sugar), the sweetener it was intended to replace. Many sought to determine if there is truly something distinctively unsafe or different about HFCS. An article from White and colleagues (2010) examined the dispute on high fructose corn syrup and found that metabolically speaking, HFCS and sucrose are basically identical (including their absorption, taste, and calories). (2) More importantly, White and colleagues point out a bigger argument concerning the obesity epidemic. There is a greater picture to look at regarding obesity; it has been able to grow through many factors (socioeconomically, environmentally, culturally, etc.) that need to be considered. The general population is certainly eating more HFCS-containing foods, but they are also eating more of everything else as well while moving less.. This has become an environment set up to promote weight gain. (2) We have yet to even think about the rest of this multifactorial epidemic.
Another noteworthy study comes from Lowndes and colleagues (2012) where their goal was to explore HFCS and sucrose and the effects on body composition and weight loss. These researchers took overweight and obese individuals, put them on weight-loss diets, and split them into 5 groups: HFCS 10%, HFCS 20%, Suc 10%, Suc 20%, and a control group. Percentages being used here reflected what percentage of the subject’s daily calories would come from the assigned sweetener. At the end of this study, researchers concluded that the levels of added sugars didn’t prevent any weight loss and body composition improvements in participants when they followed the weight loss regimen provided to them. There was also nothing noteworthy or special about HFCS that would inherently lead to weight gain. (3)
Anything in excess is not going to be good for us, so practicing moderation is key for any healthy diet. Ideally, we wouldn’t want a majority of our diet to be comprised of one nutrient and instead have a balanced mix of nutrient-dense foods, with some ‘fun’ stuff now and again. It is very unlikely that one part of the diet would be the primary cause of obesity since the root of obesity is quite complex in nature. Regardless of the caloric sweetener we use, they all still have calories and should be used mindfully in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle. Lowndes and others have presented us with a prime example of how one’s total caloric intake is most important when it exclusively comes down to weight loss and weight gain.
To conclude, the argument linking HFCS to obesity is due to a large misunderstanding. There is absolutely no need to exclude or be fearful of any food group or nutrient if you are not predisposed to any disorders in regulating blood sugar or metabolic disease. Like anything, it’s important to be wary of the health information we receive on a daily basis and to question them. Thankfully, many studies have debunked these claims and have established that a small aspect of the diet cannot be solely responsible for weight gain or obesity. Weight loss and weight gain largely come down to the total calories you consume versus the calories you expend. With this in mind, it’s important for us to keep healthy lifestyle habits in the forefront and to practice moderation alongside those bigger changes.
– Gillian SanFilippo, Team LoCoFit Coach | @gilliansanfilippo