Top view of different foods

—Gavin G.*, University of Victoria, British Columbia

(*Name changed)

You’re not the only one asking this question—medical scientists are doing the same. First, understand that sugar and fat aren’t your enemies. They play a role in providing a source of energy, allowing us to accomplish what we want to do in a day, and serve as building blocks for other vital molecules in our body. However, we can run into trouble when fat and sugar are eaten in excess, which can cause production of fat and other issues in the body.

Not all fats and sugars are created equal. Let’s go through some of them.


Fats

Healthier fats: Unsaturated (two types)

  • Monounsaturated fats, which are found in foods such as avocados; oils such as olive, canola, peanut, safflower, and sunflower; and nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans.
  • Polyunsaturated fats, which are high in omega-3s. These are found in foods such as walnuts, flax seeds, and fatty fish like salmon, cod, or mackerel.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends consuming around 30–45 mL (2–3 tablespoons) of unsaturated fat a day.

Fats to limit: Trans and saturated

  • Trans fats are often found in processed foods such as cakes, pies, cookies, and donuts.
  • Saturated fats are most often found in animal products such as fatty beef, lamb, pork, and butter.

 

Sugar

The better choice: Naturally occurring sugars

  • This is sugar that naturally occurs in food, such as in fruits, vegetables, dairy, and some grains.
  • A helpful tip: Eating sugar as part of a food that contains fibre and other nutrients (such as a piece of fruit) slows down how quickly your body absorbs the sugar. This helps avoid an intense spike in blood sugar, like you would experience after drinking a sugary beverage or eating sweets, for example.

Try to limit: Added sugar

  • Added sugars don’t contribute any health benefits and up the calorie content. They’re just added to contain the shelf life (and, of course, make the food taste sweet).
  • Added sugars are typically found in the processed foods you’d expect, such as baked goods, jams and jellies, and ice cream, but they also tend to hide in foods like barbecue sauce, ketchup, tomato sauce, canned soups, and even bread.
  • Check all your nutrition labels for added sugar. Names like agave, cane or corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, molasses, sucrose, and others all mean the same thing: sugar. For tips on reading nutrition labels, visit Health Canada.

The World Health Organization recommends consuming less than five percent of your daily caloric intake in sugar (which averages to about six teaspoons a day).

FYI, consuming large amounts of saturated fats, trans fats, and added sugars can lead to:

  • Obesity
  • Cardiac issues
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Fatty liver
  • Tooth decay

However, studies have shown that when consumed in recommended amounts, neither sugar nor fat have these effects. We are, therefore, back to the same old adages: The healthiest thing you can do is to eat a balanced diet, keeping in mind portion control and staying physically active.