Recently our government advised us to reduce our sugar intake as a way of decreasing obesity, Type 2 diabetes and a cluster of metabolic problems associated with consuming this nutritionally empty carbohydrate. No problem. Unless one were stranded in a hut in the middle of a 30 day blizzard, or floating on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is little reason to eat sugar except as a minimal flavoring agent. As a simple carbohydrate, sugar provides 4 calories per gram, but so does any starchy carbohydrate and the latter always come packaged with nutrients as well as calories.
But even though the government, unlike Marie Antoinette, has told us not to eat cake (and by the way the cake she was referring to was the fermented starter used for making bread), our desire for sweet baked goods is as strong as ever.
The solution, according to an article in last week’s Saturday/Sunday section of the Wall Street Journal (April 9-10) is to eat pastries so loaded with fat they might melt if left in a warm place.
The recipes look luscious. The ingredients, however, seemed to come right out of a Paula Deen Food Network show. (Deen used to revel in adding almost pure fat ingredients such as heavy cream and egg yolk to every recipe, and became famous for her fried butter.) One example of the WSJ recipes, Strawberry Cream Cheese Fool, is a custard like dessert served with strawberries. Along with half a pound of cream cheese, the ingredient list included two cups of heavy cream and ½ cup of crème fraiche. There was sugar, in the form of frozen apple juice concentrate. Strawberries provided some vitamins.
A coconut chiffon cake recipe had somewhat less fat but contained a cup of full fat coconut milk, and 7 large eggs. More such cholesterol and fat elevating recipes were available in cookbooks from which the described recipes were taken.
Was it really the intention of the government that we substitute fat for sugar? An expert was quoted in the article affirming that sugar has no nutritional value. True. But at 9 calories per gram, fat not only has more than twice as many calories as sugar, it also elevates triglyceride and cholesterol levels in our bodies, and although some vitamins are fat soluble, it is not necessary to drink heavy cream to obtain these nutrients. Moreover the weight gaining potential of fat is not to be underestimated.
We should be told that if we decrease our intake of sugar, we should not be compensating by increasing our consumption of fat. We should be told that if we eat a high fat diet, we change the population of bacteria living in our intestinal tract and that this has negative health consequences. When laboratory animals are fed diets high in saturated fat (butter, heavy cream) or unsaturated fat, (olive oil, avocado etc.) changes in their gut microbes occur depending on what they have eaten. Animals eating the high saturated fat diet developed signs of elevated blood insulin and glucose levels, even after fasting, because of the type of bacteria residing in their gut.
A Scientific American article reports the research of Eugene Chang on the effect of consuming a high saturated fat diet. He has shown that changes in gut bacteria following consumption of high fat foods, especially dairy (heavy cream) lead to the inflammatory responses associated with irritable bowel disease. So why are recipes with enough fat to bring about a bacterial population exchange inside us being featured in a well-respected newspaper? Why is sugar being banned, but not bacon grease? The answer is, in part, because of a spate of articles disputing the link between high cholesterol levels, fat intake, and heart disease.
‘Don’t believe the research linking lard with heart attacks and stroke,’ these articles claim. In other words, we should stop avoiding high fat foods; they are good for us. Full-fat food advocates dispute decades worth of evidence amassed by the American Heart Association about prudent low fat food choices and must be delighted with these recipes in the WSJ.
So now how are we supposed to eat?
To some extent, it depends on your personal health history and your physician’s experience and advice. The empty calories in sugar should be avoided. If you have a family history of heart disease or stroke, you should ask you physician whether you can eat saturated fats with abandonment or caution.
But let’s be realistic. Maybe we shouldn’t even be concerned with whether desserts have too much sugar or fat. Desserts were never meant to be eaten instead of a nutrient containing meal (unless you are seven years old and having a birthday celebration). When the government recommended eating less sugar, this expert nutrition panel, did not say, “Let them eat fat!” Obviously what they were hoping for is an increase in the consumption of vegetables, fruits, high fiber carbohydrates, low fat meat and dairy foods. If people want to eat dessert, they should…assuming that their weight and health allow them to. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that just because a pudding or cake has less sugar, it is as good for us as a salad or poached chicken breast.