The Battle of Fat vs. Sugar

February 25, 2014 10:33 am

I thought, settling down to watch the BBC’s ‘Horizon: Sugar vs Fat’ that maybe, just maybe, I was going to learn something groundbreaking. Or failing that, at least something new. Or something interesting.

What I saw instead was two tall, posh, good-looking doctors asking painfully ignorant questions of other doctors and “learning” that the best thing for your health was avoiding sugary, fatty food. I also “learned” that extreme diets might cause weight-loss but have other ramifications for your health. And that sugar was better than fat if you wanted quick energy.


Really? An hour of TV and a week of hype for a painfully simplified show that revealed, shockingly, that the best thing for our health might be…moderation?


It seemed like a needlessly complicated way of explaining a simple truth. If you want to be thinner, eat less. If you want to remain thin, eat carefully, healthily, and avoid cheesecake and ice-cream. Easier said than done, of course. Personally I’m a sucker for a biscuit, and it shows. But I’m under no illusion that weight loss is out of my reach – I just need to eat less. I’ll get round to it someday. Honest.

The diet industry makes this incredibly complicated. You need to eat clean, avoid fat, avoid sugar, and eat things that frankly don’t sound like food to me -stevia? Is that a person?

Yes, there is a national (and international) obesity problem. Yes, ideas of ‘ideal’ weight are distorted by the very lean and fit celebrity images against the day-to-day reality of plump people rolling past. But I don’t believe that patronising the audience in what is supposed to be a documentary is the answer.


We are surrounded by images of skinny celebrities and people who dedicate their entire lives to their appearance. Then, we are told that being skinny is as simple as cutting out a few bad foods, or just resisting those cravings. We are made to feel like failures because we are not all size 8 flat-stomached rakes who subsist happily off manuka honey and asparagus tips.

One of the biggest factors in not over-eating is determination, which is itself influenced by serotonin. The thing that will help you refuse that cake at 4pm is having the will-power to say no.

But in order to have that discipline you need to feel confident. If we don’t eat the cake, we feel virtuous, like we have achieved something. If we eat the cake, we feel guilty, because we should have just resisted the craving, like all those skinny girls on the internet do.

Never mind that many of these people’s jobs rely on their appearance. Never mind that we are hungry because our brains have been working away all day, using up the sugar in your bloodstream. Never mind that we are perfectly healthy human beings. I ate the cake, and so I failed. And so I promise myself I will go to the gym, and I look at more ‘fitspo’ or ‘thinspo’ on the internet and…Oh. Wait. I see what they did there.

The diet and fitness industry is built on knowing that people will fail. You can eat nothing but celery, or nothing but tuna, or no carbs, and excercise for 2 hours a day. For as long as you do that, you will be thin. As soon as you stop, you will put weight on again; then you will feel like you have failed. For all the people out there who never got round to starting in the first place, the insinuating guilt every time you eat a ‘treat’ food undermines the will-power you need to resist that food in the first place.

Obesity: a social and cultural problem

I am not an advocate for obesity as a lifestyle choice. Obesity is a disease, and as such needs treatment and compassion, the same way that any other eating disorder does. But there has to be a happy medium, between unhealthy obesity and unsustainable thinness.

There has to be an emphasis on ‘healthy’ rather than beauty, on fit for a function rather than fit for the sake of it. And we have to recognise that the relationship most of us with food isn’t as simple as needing nutrition. Otherwise we are all going to continue in this spiral of guilt and failure until it is too late for our hearts, our livers and our arteries.

Maybe the answer does lie in moderation, after all.


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