For decades, fats and fatty foods were demonized and given a bad reputation in the West. People were advised to follow low-fat diets to maintain a healthy weight, fight obesity, and lower the risk of heart disease. This has always been at odds with the fundamental teachings of Ayurveda that emphasize balance and moderation in all areas of life, including your diet. In Ayurvedic diets, the emphasis is on balanced nutrition with adequate foods from all food groups, including carbohydrates, protein, and fats. While these diets are not restrictive, Ayurveda has stressed the need to eat natural or whole foods, rather than processed foods. This is now borne out by evidence, which shows that ultra-processed diets are linked to a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, and other lifestyle disorders (1). What’s the common thread in all of these processed foods? They’re all loaded with trans fats and sugar.
Before we look at the findings of a study on swapping fat for sugar, lets’ take a closer look a how sugar affects your body.
Contrary to popular belief, fat intake is not what makes us fat or obese; it is sugar that is the real culprit. The confusion about fat and sugar foods is actually the result of decades of propaganda and dubious studies funded by the sugar industry, with fat emerging as the scapegoat. As more credible evidence has been accumulated and been made available in recent years, it has become clear that sugar can make you fat, also increasing the risk of various lifestyle diseases (2). This is because sugar is broken down rapidly, leading to dramatic spikes in blood glucose or sugar, triggering food cravings and overeating. Excess glucose that is not used as fuel is also stored in the body as fat.
Keep in mind that when we talk about sugar fat, we are specifically referring to table sugar and sugar added to processed foods and beverages, from candies and cookies to ketchup and colas. As pointed out in Ayurveda, natural sugars from fresh fruits and veggies are actually healthy and should comprise the bulk of your diet. Complex carb foods like these are broken down slowly and therefore do not cause dramatic blood sugar spikes. The emphasis on balance with adequate protein and fats also has an impact on blood sugar regulation and hunger, as protein and fats are broken down at a slower rate, helping stabilize glucose levels and controlling appetite.
Now that you’ve understood the risks of excess sugar intake, it would help to look at study findings that demonstrate how sugar is worse than fat.
While Ayurveda emphasized balanced nutrition for health, western medicine recommended low-fat diets for decades. Fortunately, researchers who studied the effect of such diets found that low-fat diets did not offer any significant weight loss benefits, nor did it lower the risk of heart disease or cancer (3). On the contrary, a large-scale study involving 126,000 individuals and spanning three decades highlighted the effects of swapping fat for sugar (4). The study, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was insightful and revelatory in that it confirmed some of the fundamental beliefs ideas in Ayurveda – it is not a food group itself that is good or bad, but the quality of the food; simple carbs like sugar and refined grains and saturated or trans fats from fast food and red meat were found to be unhealthy. Replacing such processed foods and sugar with healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats was found to improve heart health, reduce the risk of cancer and neurodegenerative disease, lowering the risk of any kind of death by as much as 27 percent.
Such healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can be obtained from a variety of natural food sources, including olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. Similar findings have been documented in several other studies that emphasize the importance of healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids (5). Just make sure to follow the simple Ayurvedic rule of eating in moderation if you really want to enjoy any of the health benefits of swapping fat for sugar.
If only we had delved more deeply into our rich Ayurvedic traditions and followed its simple dietary recommendations, we may have avoided the current obesity epidemic. However, it’s never too late to recognize the value of traditional wisdom and we can still use this ancient holistic health care system to shape our diet and lifestyle choices for a better future.