What do the following diet terms mean to you: Low calorie, low fat, reduced fat, low sugar, sugar free, light, fat free, trans-fat free, natural, fortified, cholesterol free, gluten free, made with natural sugars, fresh, cage-free, and raw? If you’re trying to lose weight, maintain a healthy weight or eat better-for-you foods, many products with these terms on their labels likely end up in your shopping cart on a regular basis. The FDA has clear guidelines that require food manufacturers to understand these terms before placing them on labels. The problem is that most consumers simply accept the terms without clear knowledge of what they mean. These foods with a health halo, especially “low fat,” may not be helping you lose weight or achieve better health. It’s a case of dieter, beware!
A study out of the University of Georgia suggests that diet products, especially those marketed as “low fat” can actually make you fat. Anyone living in the 1990s remembers when “the Snackwell cookie revolution” began. The company literally ran with the recommendations to limit fat and created yummy cookies sans fat. Of course, then you’ve got to use another tasty ingredient in the recipe, and sugar became the anointed fat replacement. Women were seen leaving supermarkets with shopping carts filled with Snackwell cookies, especially the Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes. The formulation may have changed over the years to reflect a push against high fructose corn syrup, but if you look at the current nutrition label list of ingredients, “sugar” is the first ingredient and it’s mentioned again as “invert sugar,” and “corn syrup.” These cookies, by nature of their sugar content, are sugar-heavy and addictive. You won’t eat just one most of the time. Not a big help to your waistline, right? The research, however, suggests there’s a bit more going on here than just over-eating.
The study, which lasted four weeks, took three groups of rats. One group ate a diet high in fat and sugar, one group ate a low-fat, high-sugar diet, and one group ate a normal, balanced diet. The researchers monitored body weight, caloric intake, body composition, and fecal samples. Both the high-fat, high-sugar group and the low-fat, high-sugar group exhibited increased liver fat, increased body weight, and increased body fat, compared to the balanced diet group. In fact, liver fat accumulation was significant in the low-fat, high-sugar group. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is on the rise in America and has been linked to excess sugar consumption. It’s similarly seen among individuals who are heavy alcohol drinkers.
Also noted was the fact that the two groups that gained body fat also exhibited significantly increased levels of chronic inflammation in the intestinal tract and brain areas. This confirms the brain-gut link and the impact excess sugar consumption can have on both. Chronic inflammation is believed to drive obesity and a number of other chronic and dangerous health conditions. The researchers suggested that the brain changes appeared to be long term without clear evidence about whether they could be reversed.
It’s also clear that a western diet, which is typically high in unhealthy fats and sugar, drives microbiome changes in the gut. Research has now confirmed that either a diet exclusively high in unhealthy fat or exclusively high in processed sugar can drive microbiome changes and imbalance. This study’s researchers suggest that the unbalanced diets featured in the research decrease microbiome diversity (not good), and the low-fat, high-sugar diet was shown to increase gut bacteria associated with damage to the liver.
Microbiota dysbiosis caused by a high-sugar diet can independently increase the risk of obesity by causing an increase in body fat accumulation.
The study confirmed that choosing these “diet foods” that are often high-sugar foods that have little fat (and loads of empty calories), can drive the body to generate more stored fat. In this case, even eating fewer overall calories daily (dieting), but including these low-fat foods, still drives the body’s physiology to gain “fat” pounds. Separately, we know that eating a high-sugar diet can independently drive you to eat more calories overall, because of dramatic drops in blood sugar that repeatedly drive hunger.
Of concern to dieticians and nutritionists is the fact that many foods are touted for containing “natural sugar” and are marketed as healthier, more virtuous choices. Current research continues to evaluate the impact of different types of sugar on weight gain and overall health, but for now, the focus should be on getting sweetness from fruits and vegetables, where naturally occurring sugar comes packed with fiber. As soon as you begin buying foods, even diet foods, that offer any type of “added sugars,” it’s a case of buyer and dieter, beware. Consider these foods as treats, even if they claim to be fortified or somehow healthier. They’re not.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”