September 10th, 2014
11:12 AM ET

Why sugar is worse than fat

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

Fareed speaks with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta about recent research on the risks of high sugar consumption. Watch the video for the full interview.

For 20 years, people have been assuming that fat was the enemy because it produced cholesterol, which was blocking arteries. That's not quite right.

I could talk about this all day long, because I think it highlights some very important things in terms of how we sometimes misinterpret science, or at least exaggerate it.

It was in the late '70s – in fact, there was a Senate commission, Senator McGovern, who actually looked at this issue and found that people who had very high levels of cholesterol tended to die early of heart disease. And there was also other studies that showed if you ate a diet high in fat, it raised your cholesterol. But those were two different studies. And they got really, really linked, not only by the Senate, but also in the scientific community and then by everybody else.

And what happened over the last 30 years, it got codified. It became the way that we eat low fat in this country. And nothing changed. In fact, things got worse. Cardiovascular disease remains the biggest killer of men and women. Diabetes rates are higher than ever before. Childhood obesity. So it didn't work. And I think that's what sort of prompted all this analysis.

I think there's two issues here. One is that fat doesn't get a free pass here. There's still some problems with it. It still raises cholesterol levels. That is associated with heart disease. The problem is that what we replaced fat with was sugar. And sugar may be more problematic, in some ways, for someone who's worried about heart disease than fat.

More from CNN: Our fear of fat is melting

If I put a double cheeseburger here and a big sugary drink and I asked anybody, which of these two things is worse for your heart, even a child would probably say the cheeseburger. And almost always they would be wrong. It's the sugary drink that gets converted into that bad cholesterol in our body.

But as you said, the crucial thing to understand is, it's not that fat is good for you, it's that if you replace fat with sugar, it's worse for you?

That's right.

Why is sugar so bad? Is there a simple way to explain that scientifically?

Here's a simple way – it’s that humans weren't designed to eat this much sugar. We used to get sugar once a year when fruit fell from the trees. Even honey was protected by the bees. How much food could you really eat? I mean you can't…10 oranges, that's enough. Now, we eat 140 pounds, roughly, a year, on average. Our bodies simply didn’t evolve to be able to handle that.

So it hits the liver, the liver says I don't know what to do with all this sugar, so it starts to metabolize it in unusual ways and it gets turned into what are known as low density lipoprotein particles. And that's the worst kind of cholesterol.

And for the body, a slice of white bread and a packet of sugar are essentially indistinguishable. The body receives them as the same. White bread – those kind of carbohydrates, for the body, are sugar?

It gets turned into sugar just the same way, and maybe a little bit of a time delay so to speak. But you can trace the sugar, whether it be in that bread or a packet of sugar, and you can find those same particles in those cholesterol particles later on.

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Topics: GPS Show • Health

soundoff (488 Responses)
  1. alexlesuper

    Too bad the food industry has congress in its pockets.

    September 10, 2014 at 11:20 am | Reply
    • LaBella

      Along with every other big business.

      September 10, 2014 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • DemsGoHome

      Blame Bush!

      September 10, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Reply
      • LaBella


        September 10, 2014 at 6:48 pm |
      • Larry L

        This is an article on nutrition and you found a way to turn it into partisan politics. Get help.

        September 10, 2014 at 7:29 pm |
    • netizen24601

      Too bad people like to exaggerate or we could spend time trying to fix the problem instead of getting everyone riled up emotionally and handicapping their ability to think logically.

      September 10, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Reply
    • Logic N Los Angeles

      Of course you go to politics first.
      We have, as a country for decades been told to eat healthier. Less fat, Less processed sugar and for at least one decade how bad soda drinks, including diet – are for us.
      Some have listened. But obviously others think it's political.

      September 10, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  2. underdog007

    Right on! I'll drink (water) to that!

    September 10, 2014 at 11:43 am | Reply
  3. sledge149

    This article is about sugar or carbohydrates? (Packet of sugar vs white bread) Or are they the same for the purposes of this article?

    I ask because I dont think of a diet traditionally high in grains like rice and fish which is traditional in the Far East as being a diet high in sugar, or for that matter, a cause of heart disease because the liver is converting the grain to fats.....

    Isnt it always best to say "moderation" is key? To vilify a category of food as being worse than another is just as bad as saying fatty meat is the problem and codifying it over the years.

    A more appropriate statement would be to say, "Everything is bad unless done in moderation."

    September 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • Research

      Sugars are Carbohydrates! (Breads vs. Sugar).
      Your question about Far East diet is a *very* good one. The real culprit is revealed when you start breaking carbohydrates down. Fructose is the big problem. Google: "Sugar The Bitter Truth"

      High-fructose corn syrup and 100% Cane sugar are not very different. 100% fruit juices are also still all sugars, with little to no fiber (BAD!)

      September 10, 2014 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • Don

      Agreed. Moderation is best. Also, drinking water near the beginning of the meal to give a sense of fullness early on is important...less overstuffing one's face with food. Personally, I like sweets and tasty meals that contain fat and protein. For breakfast (6-7 am), I eat 2 scrabbled eggs with cheese, a small portion of vegetables, half a fruit and drink a glass of 2% milk and 12 ounces of water. For lunch, I often eat Popeye's or McDonald's, say a Daily Double with a small (not medium or large) soft drink, a cup of water, and 2 cookies or 1 pie (no fries). For dinner (no later than 6 pm), I have a small portion of vegetables, small to moderatel meat serving, half a fruit and a piece of dessert, such as a slice of cake or 2 Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, along with a glass of milk and and 12 ounces of water . Occasionally, maybe twice a week, I'll snack in between meals having chips or something. I try to go to bed early (8-10 pm) to avoid those hunger cravings and 'cause I like sleep. With that diet and good sleep and regular exercise (40 minutes in the gym @ 5 am, 3-4 days a week), my cholesterol profile is great at age 43. I'm fit at 5'9" and 170 pounds, which equates to a BMI (25) at the lower end of overweight...I'm OK with that. McDonald's is not the's how much McDonald's one eats that's the problem, how little water one drinks, and how late one stays up.

      September 10, 2014 at 8:09 pm | Reply
  4. Thomas

    I like Mexican Coca-Cola , It’s still Coke . Made with real 100 cane sugar , not high-fructose corn syrup.

    Maybe it's quality ingredients over cost effectiveness, and big butt bottom-line thinking that's the Real Thing !

    September 10, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Reply
    • TK3

      The effect on your body is essentially the same(between cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup). Both result in a spike in blood sugar that result in insulin release. Its a fallacy to believe that "natural" cane sugar is somehow better for you.

      September 10, 2014 at 6:38 pm | Reply
      • 3MB2

        Sorry,.. but you are wrong !! Your body knows the difference. Your liver breaks them down differently. Why does sugar get a bad rap when it is almost never used in anything. It is high fructose corn syrup that is the poison. The sooner they start using real sugar instead of that poison, everyone will be better off.

        September 10, 2014 at 6:51 pm |
      • Betty

        You are correct here and 3MB2 is mistaken. Sugar (sucrose) and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) are broken down the same way by the body and it does not know the difference. Both sucrose and HFCS are Fructose and Glucose which is bonded together. The body breaks those bonds immediately just the same.
        HFCS is slightly worse than sucrose because the fructose portion is just a little higher but not much.

        Fructose is what's really bad for you.
        Gupta is inaccurate about the white bread. It doesn't turn into fructose. Just glucose.

        September 10, 2014 at 9:09 pm |
    • jim whelan

      Read the label on Mexi-cokes.
      The ingredients label sometimes reads "cane sugar" other times just "sugar".
      The "just sugar" is "high fructose corn syrup".

      September 10, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Reply
    • fromperpig

      Yeah, Thomas, mexican coca cola is brilliant! You are a very smart individual to note the distinction. And, you know what? When it comes to quality food and drink, you can trust those manufacturers in Mexico! Wow, that's smart!

      September 10, 2014 at 11:38 pm | Reply
  5. jocelmad fruit no carbs meat and dairy aren't great.....what "can" we eat?

    September 10, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      You can eat me. I'm yummy

      September 10, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  6. dazzle

    Prepared foods are loaded with sugar and it's derivatives. I will still eat fruit and drink 100% fruit juices. Bread is completely out unless I make it myself. I don't think I can give up pasta. Also readers, check the labels on your vitamin supplements. We did a sweep of our nutritional supplements and pitched the supplements that contained sugar. Thank you Dr. Gupta for shedding light on this.

    September 10, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Reply
    • 123elle

      Actually, it's much healthier to eat whole fruit which is full of fiber than to drink even fresh fruit juice, which is condensed from many ripe fruit and very high in calories and plant sugar. As for bread, bake high in natural grains and fiber, not with processed white flour.

      September 10, 2014 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • mercfan74

      And that's the problem. Some foods have 4 or 5 different kinds of sugars in them and most people only know about Fructose.

      What Sanjay never talks about is that high cholesterol and diabetes is becoming a problem for thin people as well. A new term is being bounced around by doctors now (TOFI) thin on the outside, fat on the inside. Because the ailments normally associated with fat people have been increasing in thin people. How can that be if they are controlling their weight and eating low fat diets?

      September 10, 2014 at 7:37 pm | Reply
    • Betty

      Juice is very bad for you.
      As far as fructose content, 100% fruit juices are just as bad as sugared sodas (HFCS or sucrose

      September 10, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Reply
  7. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    I don't like sugar. I can't eat bread that tastes sweet, which most bread now does, except dazzle's, of course, praise her.
    I never accepted e bad put fat, even when trainers at the gym told me that fat in food became fat on the body.
    I believe that nutritionists have a causal

    September 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      I posted an unfinished comment because an incoming call confused my pianist's fingers.

      September 10, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Reply
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        As I was saying,
        I never accepted the bad press about fat. Fat in food does not go directly onto the body as fat, or certainly no more frequently than red wine turns directly into human blood, once drunk.
        Nutritionists have, in my opinion, a causal relationship to the USA's wealth of obesity. They could not do it without the Food Pyramid, or its present incarnation for the percentage-comprehensin-challenged.

        September 10, 2014 at 5:32 pm |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        Wheat is cheaper to grow than a cow, and therefore more profitable. Hence, the Food Pyramid/Pie/Graph from lobbyists and our government.

        September 10, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
      • mjplatt2014

        The profitability of any item is not solely the function of it's cost of production.

        September 10, 2014 at 7:16 pm |
      • rupert

        I agree with Joey. Fat can actually help you lose weight. Just drop the carbs.

        September 10, 2014 at 8:53 pm |
  8. SoCalMatt661

    Hey everybody, air is bad for you too, start cutting down all the trees immediately!

    September 10, 2014 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  9. Ok

    Sooooo now I need to switch back to using fake sugar in my coffee? Almost anything in excess is bad for you, but those who moderate their diets best and exercise will most of the time be better off than those who don't, you don't need a scientist to tell you that.

    September 10, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Reply
  10. BeverlyNC

    Fat in food has very little to do with your weight. SUGAR destroys your body from the inside out and the disease of sugar we see a huge increase in is Type II Diabetes. Sugar spikes your blood sugar. It destroys your kidneys, your liver, your ability to process so much sugar. Sugar is what makes you fat.
    Have you ever read a label looking at sugar grams? It would stun you. So-called "healthy foods" have unbelievable amounts of sugar in them. An average person should not eat more than 30 grams of sugar a day and you really should not eat more than 20.
    Check the cereal you feed your children. Look at sugar grams in ketchup, in salad dressings, in all processed food. You will understand why you gain weight and can't get it off. You will understand why you have no energy, sit on the couch and never go anywhere where you have to expend energy.
    Sugar is also addictive. It just like a drug and it is habit very hard to break. I went off all sugar months ago and some days I would kill for chocolate.
    Type II Diabetes runs in my family and have watched them die from this horrible disease that slowly kills you over 20 years. It ruins your life, what you can do, what you can eat, constantly having to measure blood sugar levels, take insulin shots all the way your organs are deteriorating and eventually you die from heart failure from the stress of your failing organs.
    Read every label for sugar grams and reject anything more than 10gs per serving. You will find alternatives of the same food by responsible companies who offer sugar-free food. Ex. You can buy Heinz sugar-free ketchup. You just have to look.
    You life and stopping obesity in your children is worth it.

    September 10, 2014 at 6:35 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      10g of sugar per serving. Ok beverly. But how many grams of sugar per day?

      September 10, 2014 at 9:37 pm | Reply
    • thepanttherlady

      I was absolutely shocked at the grams of sugar in a Gatorade bottle I'd purchased for my son one day. Won't be buying them again.

      September 11, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  11. Will

    It's gonna get to the point where these food nazis are going to require that I get a signed waiver from a 5 year old before I'm allowed to sell them a small cone!

    September 10, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  12. skarrlette

    I'm a 43 year old female, and my cholesterol is 125, I have never had diabetes or high blood pressure. My doctor said and I quote "everyone wishes they had your cholesterol number". I eat cheese and sometimes high fat foods, and I eat sugar. Not a ton but I do. I just ate a package of cookie dough oreos over the last few days. Not everyone is a medical problem. Not everyone can't control themselves. I think what has helped me a is a lot of cardio. Just started running and do the treadmill on high hill and spin all the time.

    September 10, 2014 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • Fiona

      Skarlette, it's genetics. My late father was quite fat for most of his adult life, and he was a midnight muncher and a snacker of things he should never have eaten. But he always had super-low cholesterol and remarkably low low blood pressure. Never had a heart issue.

      He died of cancer.

      September 10, 2014 at 7:12 pm | Reply
      • Skarrlette

        My grandmother lived till she was 98 no cancer, no heart disease and my father healthy as a horse 68 rides his road bike. Over 50 miles a week. I take after both of them so I guess I am lucky 🙂

        September 10, 2014 at 7:20 pm |
      • rupert

        Fiona. Sorry to hear about your father's passing. So sad.
        I dread the day I lose either of my parents.

        September 10, 2014 at 9:10 pm |
  13. Fiona

    Kudos for the simple, straightforward explanation of the sugar-to-cholesterol conversion.

    Anecdotal information: I ate a single-serving box of fancy jelly beans yesterday, and today I feel like death warmed over. I feel as if I have been poisoned.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Reply
    • Peter Griffin

      The explanation was very simple and very wrong. Sugar does NOT EVER get converted to fat except on very extreme cases. Gupta must have missed basic nutritional biology.

      September 11, 2014 at 7:59 am | Reply
  14. Fiona

    Kudos for the simple, straightforward explanation of the sugar-to-cholesterol conversion.

    Anecdotal information: I ate a single-serving box of fancy jelly beans yesterday, and today I feel like death warmed over. I feel as if I have been poisoned.

    I do adore breads and baked goods, though.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  15. DanaRi

    That study compared people eating healthy fats and low carbs to people eating low fat. This does not mean that bacon is good for you. CNN – you need to do a better job in reporting this.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Reply
    • Taffylinden

      No, Dr. Gupta explains in the article that just because sugar is bad for you doesn't mean that fat isn't still bad.

      September 10, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      Yea cnn. U got that? Dana is a registered dietician.

      September 10, 2014 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  16. Mee

    Dietary sugar is metabolized in the liver to cholesterol because we haven't evolved to handle high sugar diets?

    That's pure conjecture, and he states it as FACT. That's exactly what happened in the 70s with the low fat diet! Just because we surmise something to be likely, does not mean it IS true.

    Shame on you for reporting this as a fact, rather than a hypothesis.

    Cholesterol biosynthesis begins with acetyl-coA. That's a by-product of both fat and carbohydrate metabolism. It's not about the fat or the sugar. It's undoubtedly much more complex, and is probably dramatically impacted by our immense CALORIC INTAKE and the plethora of diseases it spawns.

    Eat less. Lose weight. Live longer.

    By the way, if we can't eat fat and we can't eat sugar, what's left? Pure protein shakes?! Yum. Ridiculous generalizations are seldom correct. Isn't that what the "low-fat" dogma taught us?

    September 10, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  17. SuZieCoyote

    The thing that I ponder is "What else are they wrong about and will take 30 years to admit? Mercury in dental amalgam? Safe levels of pesticides? Toxins in almost everything in our homes? Highly hybridized wheat? GMO foods? High-Fructose Corn syrup OK? Everyone in the US on statins? I am not a religious person in any way, but I can see why some people turn their back on science and look for biblical solutions. When all research is moderated by the deep pockets and political clout of those profiting, that research cannot be trusted. This doesn't mean that science can't be trusted, just that we never seem to know when we are getting real science or tracts written by lobbyists.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  18. Grammar Police

    Wow. This article is so full of grammatical errors that it's disturbing to read. What happened to editors who could fix the grammar errors produced by uneducated "reporters"? The verb tenses are all screwed up. Come on, CNN, don't you pay your employees for decent English grammar skills, too? Seriously.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Reply
    • rtkMD

      This was an interview, so these are quotes. Editors cannot just change what people say.

      September 10, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      People are dying of sugar and bread and over eating and you're worried about grammar? Really? Do you want an award or something?

      September 10, 2014 at 8:59 pm | Reply
  19. sheila king

    I work in the health field and always tell my patients to stick to the vegetable section of the grocery store - stay away from the bakery and mid section since those are where the bad stuff is mostly located. Eat veggies, fish and some poultry (not fried) and mix in a handful of nuts and fruit daily. Don't overdue dairy either. Drink lots of water. Most of us drink less than we should on a daily basis but it, too, is very important.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Reply
    • sheila king

      Overdue = Overdo = my mistake

      September 10, 2014 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      You must be a nurse. Or PT, or PA.

      September 10, 2014 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  20. this article is stupid

    Humans have been eating primarily sugar since we could harvest, which is a milestone in our development of societies as humans yet we are saying we are not equipped to digest sugar as primary ingredient in our diet? lol. It's because we are equipped to digest it that we do so, so efficiently. Excess calories are why people get fat, period. If the energy is not chemically there to form fat cells it is literally impossible for the body to do so. At no point, even while starving, will the human body remove muscle and add fat. That only happens during atrophy which has less to do with diet and more to do with lack of exercise.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • Tim

      In your overly simplistic logic based only on the amount of calories, you seem to be ignoring the important differences in metabolism between different types of food we eat. That is the whole point of this article!

      September 10, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Reply
      • this article is stupid

        No actually, I intentionally disregarded that point as insignificant as it is.

        September 11, 2014 at 10:03 am |
  21. Jaques Mein

    Missa Fareed, why you no wear turban?

    September 10, 2014 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      Jaques Mein. Why you wear no clean underware?

      September 10, 2014 at 9:16 pm | Reply
  22. Rob

    I cut out sugar, white rice, dairy products and flour/potato based products about three months ago. I dropped 7 lbs the first week and 6 lbs the second week. 3 months in I am 25lbs down. I dont really need to watch my fat because there isnt much in foods that are not in these categories. It has been amazing what cutting these from my diet has done. I started at a muscular 215 and am now 190 with a target weight of 180. Its amazing how you dont realize how these simple carbs affect your body. Once you cut them out and look for alternatives you start to realize how much of your diet is simple carbs.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  23. sheila king

    We get sugar in vegetables, fruits and probably some in nuts. Just should watch adding much more to our daily diets. The food industry made sure laws were passed allowing them to add sugar to just about any processed food out there because it is addictive. If you stop eating much of the stuff, you soon find that you don't need it. Processed foods would generally taste like cardboard without it.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  24. Guest1

    Sugar is bad... mmmkay?

    September 10, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  25. sheila king

    Rob, I know a few people who did exactly the same and they did lose a lot of weight. Some I didn't see for months after they started their diets and didn't recognize them when I did see them due to their transformation. It is possible to live healthier without that stuff. You almost always have more energy and a better self image.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:55 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      Sheila. It's a way of life not just a diet for me. I hate clogged arteries and excess fat. Call me wateful but my burger combos are water, a few fries and tossed bread for the birds.I just eat the meat and veggies.

      September 10, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  26. sheila king

    Guest1, a little sugar is okay. The problem is that people don't even realize how much sugar they are eating daily in all the foods they get, many of which are processed with additives, esp sugar.

    September 10, 2014 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  27. Ace

    Well isn't this just great – I just bought a whole loaf of Wonder Bread.

    September 10, 2014 at 8:02 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      Don't think of it as bread. Think of it as sugar.

      September 10, 2014 at 8:55 pm | Reply
  28. rupert

    I eat high fat(avocado,pizza topping-no crust, olive oil,etc) low carb diet. Target 300 calaries a day. Fail. But come close. Enough to keep hunger to a minimum. I hardly get hungry, it's scarey.
    Google ketogenic diet.

    September 10, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  29. Hillary 2016

    ......I stopped drinking all sodas years ago, & I no longer eat any bread, not even for a sandwich, and I feel so much healthier! Ice cream is my weakness though....BEN & JERRY'S! ....I know, right!

    September 10, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Reply
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