The English language is well known for being difficult to learn. We have many words that are spelt the same, sound the same, but have a different meaning or we simply have different words for the same thing. The language of nutrition, diet and food are not exempt from these traits. The resulting confusion is having a huge impact on our lives, leading many people to avoid foods that could be good for them and choosing foods that are driving the obesity and health pandemics.
There are two issues that need to be resolved:
- Eating fat does not make people fat
- Most of the sugar people eat is not even called ‘sugar’
Fat doesn’t make you fat, sugar does
In English, we use the word “fat” as both a noun and an adjective. As a noun, fat is a substance — one of the key macronutrients, something you can eat — and as an adjective it’s a description of obesity, something you can be. On that second part, people are not fat - they carry extra fat as a natural result of their body storing energy.
It’s understandable that people make the leap to assume that fatty food in a diet then ‘turns into’ body fat, resulting in obesity. This obsession peaked in the 80s and 90s, when the Big Food industry seized the chance to pin the blame for obesity on fat (the noun) and sell low fat foods as a supposed way to not become fat (the adjective).
Although sales figures of low fat foods jumped for a while, the obesity crisis continues to grow. It’s clear now from research, and backed by Limbo’s data set, that the chief driver of obesity is not dietary fat at all, but sugars. It might sound counterintuitive, but it is all driven by our body’s desire to keep our energy in balance.
Just as your body regulates your hormones, temperature, heart rate, and so on, it’s striving to regulate the amount of energy in your blood. Measured as blood glucose, your body wants to keep it at between 4-6 mmol/L — roughly a teaspoon of glucose in all your blood at any given time.
When there is too much glucose in your blood your body releases insulin to store the excess energy away. Where does it store it? In your fat cells. If you keep creating an excess of energy your body creates more fat cells to store the energy. The end result? You put on weight around your body in the form of fat.
Most of the sugar we eat is not called sugar
The second major cause for confusion is that we generally use the word ‘sugar’ and ‘sweet’ or ‘sweets’ (again, both a noun and an adjective) only for things that taste sweet, but we use a totally different word — ‘carbohydrate’ — for sugars that don’t.
The problem is, although carbohydrates and sugar may taste different on the tongue, they are one and the same thing in a different shape and have essentially the same impact on our body. After digestion they enter the blood as glucose, and any energy that is not immediately required gets stored.
The Big Food industry also uses carbohydrates and sugar in a misleading way - there are over 50 other terms used in food labels to indicate added sugars. The traffic light system of sugar content is gamed by adjusting the recommended portion size rather than removing the ingredient. Why do they do this? Sugar makes food taste good, so you’ll buy more. Sugar also has some preservation properties to lengthen the shelf-life, and adding certain carbohydrates such as rusk to sausages bulks out the product, making you feel like you’re getting value for money.
Seeing things clearly
Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) technology, such as that used by Limbo, shows how quickly and how much energy enters the blood after a meal, before the body responds to use it up or store the excess. When Limbo members begin the programme they typically spend the first few days eating their usual diet, often the food routine they have followed for decades. They are shocked and dismayed to find those foods are a metabolic disaster, sending their blood glucose all over the place.
With a clear picture of what their diets are doing to their bodies, members begin to make changes to bring their blood glucose into balance. Guided by messages in the app they switch their food strategy, towards protein and fat (not away from it), and start to see success. Changing their food choices impacts not only with their weight, but their energy levels, focus and a host of other parameters. Excessive eating of carbohydrates does more than make us put on weight. A well-known side effect of a carbohydrate-heavy diet is a regular brain fog and lethargy.
Time for a re-think
While we’ve been busy avoiding fat and swapping sugar for synthetic alternatives we have ignored the real culprit hiding under the guise of another name. It’s time for a re-think.
This mistake is not an aberration, though. It’s a society-wide mistake, which we’re now seeing borne out in data. The standard, sugar/carb-rich foods that people are socialised into thinking as part of a ‘normal’ diet are driving obesity.
Our diets of cereal, porridge or toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, meat and starch for dinner, interspersed with a huge array of processed drinks and snacks, have become the norm. These eating patterns are driving the obesity and health crises.
Humans have millions of years of genetic heritage, but only about 12,000 years of agriculture, and only 50 or so years of cheap, mass-produced food. Our hunter-gatherer bodies don’t let any energy go to waste and have evolved to always prepare for food scarcity — a bad winter, no crops, famine — that will likely never arrive. More people today are at higher risk of death from obesity-related illness than of starvation.
If you don’t use up all of the energy that you put into your body you will put on fat. It’s a certainty because that’s what your body does. And it’s really good and very efficient at it. Carbohydrates are quickly turned into energy, usually too quickly for us to use before our bodies start storing it away. Your body doesn’t have to do too much work to get that energy either. Protein and fats, on the other hand, require your body to invest energy in using them.
So, if you’re trying to lose weight start worrying less about fat, and more about sugar and carbohydrates.