The calories v. sugar debate
So recently on the interwebs there was a bit of discussion on a social network about the importance of sugar in the diet. Actually it was more than just a discussion as some members took to mocking the other side who then responded to blocking the immature commenter from their profile.
Now what that is all about was the fact that one group was of the belief that the increased consumption of sugar is the culprit of our deteriorating health i.e. obesity, metabolic syndrome etc. And the other side was dismissing the notion of sugar being responsible and favouring the opinion that increased calories were the root cause of society’s declining health.
A couple of points on this:
1. This isn’t religion and we don’t need to get overly offended about the position of another individual or group based on what they believe with respect to nutrition.
2. The two positions aren’t mutually exclusive. Why can’t we believe both positions? In other words isn’t it possible that we are both eating more calories and eating more sugar today than we ever have in our history? It kind of seems like a silly 80s beer commercial.
So it is possible for both sides to be right. We are consuming more sugar than we have in our history and we are consuming more calories as well. The solution doesn’t have to be one or the other in terms of reducing calories or reducing sugar. The answer should be both.
And this is something we have been preaching to our clients for as long as I can remember. Actually I can remember as it was something I learned from an American colleague of mine at a conference in Colorado. You see as soon as I realized Shawn was a registered dietician I was peppering him with questions for the entire conference. And one of the things he said that stuck with me was that we have to consider our nutrition in three areas. If we meet two of the three conditions than we will have problems when it comes to meeting our weight loss, performance or health oriented goals.
And these three conditions for nutrition were:
Dose – How much we eat of something matters.
Quality – How good or bad something is for us matters.
Timing – When we eat matters.
The interesting thing is that many who believe they have everything dialed in with respect to their nutrition are addressing only two out of three. Here’s how this would look with each of the three scenarios above.
Dose/quality satisfied, timing ignored – This would be the person who eats the right amount of calories of the best quality foods but skips breakfast and lunch. This person then eats 2000 cal dinners every night, has difficulty sleeping as a result, is not hungry upon waking in the morning. In fact they may be so full from the previous night’s meal that they complain of nausea when training the following am.
Dose/timing satisfied, quality ignored – If an individual required 2000 calories to maintain body mass than this is the person that eats exactly that amount. And unlike the person in the previous example who eats all 2000 at one sitting this person eats 500 calorie meals spread out over four meals throughout the day. The problem is that the 500 calorie meals consist of ice cream, pizza, nachos and cotton candy. In other words although the timing and amount of calories is good the quality is terrible.
Quality/timing satisfied, dose ignored – This is the person that eats the best quality foods at the right times but not the right amount. And while we typically might think of this of being an issue of over-eating it can work both ways. In fact it may be more limiting for those looking to drop some weight if they cut calories too much. Using the same numbers as above for the 2000 calories required per day this might be the person that eats broccoli, chick breast, spinach, fish and many other healthy proteins, vegetables and drinks water. The problem would occur if this person only eats 1000 calories per day of these foods. On the other hand it would also be a problem if someone were to eat 4000 calories per day of the healthiest foods and then struggle to lose weight.
To summarize you can’t worry simply about sugars intake and ignore the basics thermodynamics which dictate whether weight is gained or lost. At the same time a calorie is not a calorie. There needs to be some consideration for the quality of the food we consume and not simply look to create a deficit regardless of which types of foods make up the calories.
In the next post we’ll look more closely at which factors influence weight gain or weight loss.