For a while, fat was the culprit – eating too much fat was making us fat.
We were swamped by low-fat products, like cheese and salad dressings and even low-fat potato chips. Briefly, Burger King even offered low-fat French fries (Those quickly disappeared from the menu. Don’t mess with the fries.) Yet, with or without the low-fat foods, obesity rates continued to climb.
More-recently, sugar has emerged as the “deadly villain” in the obesity epidemic. Forget the fat – it’s the sugar, or the refined high fructose corn syrup, that’s messing with our metabolism and expanding waistlines. Just cut back—or eliminate—added sugar, and our weight problems will be over.
But a recent study from Australia shows that maybe it’s not so simple as blaming the sugar, either. Researchers there found that, on a population level, reduced sugar consumption was associated with an increasing rate of obesity. It’s funny how real-world data seems to clash with our little pet theories sometimes.
The authors used data about food consumption from several different academic and government sources, creating graphs of overall per capita sugar consumption among Australian adults and children from 1980 and 2011. Although the exact numbers vary by demographic groups, there was a clear overall trend towards less sugar intake over those years. They then looked at obesity rates, based on national surveys.
The combined data is in the graph below. Sugar consumption is in blue, and though it goes up and down some years, the overall trend is downwards. In red you can see the Australian obesity rates. There’s more data in the paper about specific groups (men versus women, children versus adults), but overall the trend is clear: less sugar consumption is associated with more obesity.
The authors conclude, “There may be unintended consequences of a singular focus on refined sugars…”
So if it’s not the sugars, and it’s not the fat, what is it? I think it’s unlikely that there is a single boogeyman, or a “one thing” we can point our fingers at as the culprit. Obesity has many contributors, including decreasing physical activity, eating bigger portions, and eating more frequently. Low-quality “fast food” is quick and convenient, but it’s certainly not cheap in the long run. A ton of extra sugar can’t be good for your teeth, and is one source of extra calories you don’t need. But it’s not just the sugar that we’re eating too much.