Sugar Replaces Fat as the #1 Enemy in American Diets

Bowls of fruits, vegetables, and nuts

Fat clogs our arteries. We should eat less fat to keep our arteries clean. Based on the recommendations of health and nutrition experts, that is exactly what Americans did starting in the 1960’s.

Recently, however, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee came out with updated recommendations. Sugar, particularly added sugar, is their prime target -- not fat. The panel recommends that Americans:

  • Limit added sugar to roughly 10 percent of daily calories -- about 12 teaspoons per day. Currently, we consume 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugar daily, half of which comes from soda, juices and other sugary drinks.
  • The previous recommendation about limiting total fat intake to 35 percent of daily calories was removed. Eggs and shrimp were removed from the “don’t eat” list.

Why Guidelines Changed and Why it Makes Sense

Heeding research findings of the 1960s, skim milk replaced whole milk in American homes. Cereals replaced eggs on the breakfast table. Low-fat products filled the grocery shelves.

What happened though was unexpected: Despite eating less fat Americans gained weight at an alarming rate. Instead of less heart disease there was more.

How Do We Explain this Fat Paradox?

First, eating less fat means eating more of the other two remaining nutrients -- protein and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, cake and cookies taste great, so “carbs,” for the most part, replaced fat in our diets.

Second, most of the fat/cholesterol in our arteries does not come from our dietary intake but from particles produced in the liver. Obesity and the metabolic derangements that come from it are the primary cause of fat build-up in our arteries.

Nutrition experts now recognize this fat paradox and dietary recommendations have changed accordingly.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee emphasizes the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet which consists primarily of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and moderate levels of alcohol.

Healthy eating patterns, in combination with regular exercise, are the keys to avoiding heart disease as well as other chronic diseases. As long as the fats we eat are primarily healthy, fat isn’t the enemy anymore.

If you want to assess your risk for heart disease, Lancaster General Health’s Heart Health Profiler can help.

author name

Rolf L. Andersen, MD, FACC

Rolf L. Andersen, MD, FACC, is a cardiologist with The Heart Group of Lancaster General Health where he is director of the Risk Factor Clinic.
Education: A graduate of Columbia University, Dr. Andersen is a research investigator at Lancaster Heart & Vascular Institute, and has participated in 40 clinical studies on the safety and effectiveness of various drug therapies and treatment devices.

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