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. rtkMD

    Good interview, but really brief. He said he could talk all day. My biochemistry studies were in the 1970's and we were taught what was known then. Dr. Gupta says re carbohydrate: "it gets turned into what are known as low density lipoprotein particles. And that's the worst kind of cholesterol." I am trying to find out what kind of cholesterol dietary fat turns into from fatty acids and glycerol. That would help because my guess is that for most people, cutting down on carbos will probably result in increasing dietary fat, particularly the ones we always thought were bad, saturated fats (I hope not trans-fats!) I assume they must have been proven to turn into some "better" form of fat/cholesterol than the sugars do. I haven't been able to find a good source here.

    September 10, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Reply
    • Mee

      LDL is not "cholesterol", nor is HDL. They are lipoproteins that carry dietary lipids, predominantly fatty acids and cholesterol. It's just plain biochemically wrong to call LDL "cholesterol" at all. It's not cholesterol. It's a composite of all kinds of lipids (including cholesterol) and carrier proteins; all wrapped up in a package that can travel through the bloodstream and get absorbed by peripheral tissue.

      Fats will be metabolized into acetyl-coA after lipases liberate free fatty acids from the glycerol backbone. That acetyl-coA is chemically indistinguishable from acetyl-coA produced by carb metabolism. It's not the biosynthesis of cholesterol that's an issue. It's the relative ratio of LDL and HDL in the bloodstream. These kinds of studies that they cite involving controlled dietary intake are merely correlative and his argument is simply a rationalization of the studies' findings. Until a rational mechanism is proposed, it's all just conjecture.

      The first hint that someone is armed with only a portion of understanding is when they call LDL and HDL "cholesterol". If they do so, they have no fundamental understanding of biochemistry at all. Ultimately, the factors that influence LDL and HDL levels will be far more complex than simply fats vs. carbs. All sorts of factors should logically come into play: overall metabolic health (diabetes, etc.), body condition and obesity, the level of overall caloric intake, LDL receptor and SREBP defects, the level of saturated vs. unsaturated fats ingested, even exercise levels. These studies all use thousands of subjects with thousands of variations of all those factors, then draw the conclusion that one factor is responsible for the data because it's a good, simple headline. Nonsense. Real life will end up more complicated and we'll be seeing articles 20 years from now bemoaning our current attacks on low-fat diets. In our hope to find a simple answer, we keep kidding ourselves that there even IS a simple answer.

      September 11, 2014 at 12:25 am | Reply
    • Plantiful

      Sugar, or sucrose, is a disaccharide consisting of glucose and fructose which are chemically bound together. When it is eaten, its digestion is regulated by the enzyme sucrase, which then liberates the glucose and fructose for metabolism by insulin and cells in the body for glucose and by the liver into triglycerides for the fructose.

      The big, bad sugar is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which consists of glucose and fructose already in free form: once consumed, the glucose goes straight into the blood and fructose goes straight to the liver. Since glucose is the body's raw fuel, if the energy is not needed/used, it gets stored as fat. The liver, is pushed to process the surge in fructose levels, with every drink, or anything contains HFCS.

      The saturated fats are not really bad. The Framingham Heart Study pointed this out. The trans fats, are bad, as they are unnatural and the body cannot process them, so they become arterial plaque.

      The issue with meat, especially in the West, is that it is farmed using industrial techniques, not farming: cows eat grass, giving their meat proper levels of omega-3 (fish oil). Corn, containing no omega-3 materials, strip the omega-3s, leaving omega-6 fatty acids, which have been found to cause higher cholesterol, greater plaques. This goes for chicken, eggs, lamb, and fish.

      The proper foods, using today's terminology, consist of:

      Pastured beef, and chicken and eggs,
      Wild fish
      Grass-fed milk, yogurt, butter, cheese.

      Organic meats only mean that their improper grain-diet lacks GMOs and pesticides, which is better, but the fats and nutrients are improperly balanced at the least.

      These can be found closest to you at eatwild[dot]com

      September 11, 2014 at 7:23 am | Reply
  2. Sophie

    Another problem which has been buried by Congress is the wheat problem. Read the book "The Wheat Belly Diet" – it explains how wheat is subsidized and now in everything we eat. I stopped eating wheat – and started losing stubborn weight – wheat turns into sugar too – and we do not need the huge amounts in the American diet. Use pumpernickel bagels or bread – lower on the glycemic index......

    September 10, 2014 at 8:34 pm | Reply
    • Sue

      Thank you for the tip Sophie.

      September 10, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Reply
    • Heywood Jablowme

      Everything turns into sugar when you eat it. Everything, including pumpernickel."Wheat" isn't the bad guy. Refined wheat, or any processed grains for that matter (white bread, white rice, noodles made from white flour, etc.) are converted to sugar almost instantly upon consumption because your digestive system doesn't need to get through the germ and bran to get to the good stuff. Well, converted to glycogen, actually, which is what your muscles use as fuel. When you flood your body with excess glycogen that it cannot use, it then gets stored as fat. Wheat is fine as long as you eat the whole grain variety, please don't spread half-truths about things you need to read more about.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:04 pm | Reply
      • Trance

        You do have heard about ketogenesis, right?

        September 10, 2014 at 10:28 pm |
      • Brutus

        Everything does not turn into sugar – only carbohydrates. Proteins and fats do not break down into sugar. This article is lo-carb 101 from at least as far back as the 70s and probably earlier. Get your carbs from fruits and vegetables and stay away from the breads, pastas, sweets and processed foods (including fruit juices). Try to do as much shopping in the meat and produce sections of the grocery store. Our bodies were built to digest whole foods. The closer we get to that, the healthier we will be. Nothing new in this article except that the scientific community is starting to catch up. Just as a fyi, I am a work in progress so not preaching – I had pizza last night. Still, I know limiting the carbs to fruits and veggies is the ticket to much better health.

        September 10, 2014 at 10:39 pm |
      • ForRealThisTime

        So says the guy with the name "Heywood Jablowme".

        September 10, 2014 at 10:57 pm |
    • stacks

      Also check out "The Blood Sugar Solution" by Dr. Hyman.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:06 pm | Reply
    • Greg Bennick

      Are you also referring to whole wheat?

      September 10, 2014 at 11:42 pm | Reply
    • JokeJustice

      Actually corn is the same and far more subsidized. Read The Omnivore's Dilemma.

      September 11, 2014 at 12:02 am | Reply
  3. orlop

    News flash....eventually, we are going to die and nothing is going to stop that.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:00 pm | Reply
    • tomalrocks

      Alright then, why do you eat then? You are gonna die anyways. Save the food for the needy in Africa.

      September 10, 2014 at 9:12 pm | Reply
    • RightOnMan

      You said it...wheat white bread bagel pig fat elephant fat sugar or corn syrup...if you want to live healthy stop shoving so much stuff in your mouth and exercise

      September 10, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Reply
    • Jeremy

      Do you even have a point, or are you just reveling in your firm grasp of the obvious? There is this little thing called "quality of life".

      September 10, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  4. John Sparling

    What a great interview! It's these kinds of short interviews on topics that can benefit us all, with helpful practical information that we can implement into our busy lives right now, that I find very useful. No need to read a 300 page book regarding the given topic, which very few of us would do anyway.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:00 pm | Reply
    • Joseph

      Dr Atkins told us these over 20 yrs ago and he was so right. We just didnt hear it, cause we assume the government is correct.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:12 pm | Reply
      • Curlee

        I am fairly certain that endorsing the Atkins diet was not the point of this interview. Actually far from it.

        September 10, 2014 at 11:31 pm |
      • JokeJustice

        Exactly–Dr Atkins and most low-carb are much more what many human bodies are built for as opposed to all the sugar, sugary fruits, etc, that the food industry, "health gurus" (that make a ton of $ from saying it), and people parrots have been saying we should have.

        September 11, 2014 at 12:08 am |
    • readerpan

      Yeah, why would you want more than the least possible information. Then you might start thinking for yourself instead of waiting for the next sound-bite revelation.

      September 10, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Reply
    • bambibones

      Just because information is given in convenient sound-bytes to undereducated citizens doesn't mean it is correct.

      Marx was partially wrong that religion is the opiate of the masses: he left out pseudoscience, which replaces the role of religion for some of our population.

      September 11, 2014 at 11:21 am | Reply
  5. Ferhat Balkan

    It can be quite frustrating. In order to eat healthy and avoid dangerous chemicals or additives one has to practically read dietary books or instruction manuals. Even those books can be quite confusing and misguided sometimes. On top of that, you have to go on a hunt for specific food with specific ingredients at places that literally have thousands of various foods on the shelves only to end up going in circles. I mean, can't the government get this organized? Can't they take responsibility and force multi-billion dollar corporations to start producing more healthy foods for the public, for kids and adults who just want to go grab something from a store without having to worry about cancer or diabetes or obesity?

    September 10, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Reply
    • Gobsmacked

      While I agree, what would happen is that half the electorate would start screaming again about how government is trying to control our lives.

      September 10, 2014 at 9:23 pm | Reply
    • nice try, Ferhat

      Nice try, Ferhat. It is much more important for the US government to focus on killing muslims. Valuable data about food and teaching the American people to eat right..... nah!!! Fix our crumbling infrastructure... nah!!! Figure out how to get our jobs back from Asia....nah!!! Bomb them, bomb them, bomb them and bomb them some more....... that's all our politicians are bribed to concentrate fully upon..... any slight deviation from the "war mongers" agenda, is reason to have your campaign financing pulled, your name disgraced and you can even be permanently expelled from Washington DC.........

      September 10, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Reply
    • kotjmf

      Forget the books and instruction manuals. Don't eat anything that comes from multi-billion dollar corporations. Eat stuff you can identify and know the origin of.

      September 10, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Reply
    • readerpan

      Well Ferhat, I know it would be simpler to just wait for government to solve all your problems but maybe you should try thinking for's a lot safer.

      September 10, 2014 at 11:18 pm | Reply
    • Stephen Johnson

      Yes, it really is easy. 90% of what you eat should be fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and meat. If you eat cookies or desserts, bake them yourself. It's fun, limits what you will eat, and you will know what's in it (no preservatives, MSG, coloring agents, etc.).

      September 11, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • jdilly

      No, its actually simple. "Eat Whole Food"

      September 11, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  6. Muhammad alwani

    Good. Let the dumb people in dis country eat sugar drink and get fat and die. We in our countries dont eat ths because we are not epwealty capital doggs and we eat only what our Allah tells us to good diet and prey every day. The former leader of Iran said..a world without America is possible...he said this several years ago as president exactly this. Yes.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Reply
    • ASDF

      You are either a troll, VERY misguided or, hilarious.

      September 10, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Reply
    • Dan

      A world without you would be great. Learn some grammar you towel head camel jockey.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:00 pm | Reply
    • readerpan

      Diet is not a problem in Muslim countries...ISIL and other barbarian muslims will see that the population stays in check

      September 10, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Reply
  7. Gupta looks like a starved Indian kid

    Remember those pics we all saw when that major famine hit India, many decades ago? There were a bunch of kids that looked really scrawny, skinny, emaciated, starved, famine stricken. Dr. Sanjay Gupta looked like a perfectly happy, slightly obese American, about 2 years ago. Look at him now! India famine victim? He needs to eat some pepperoni pizza, some hamburgers and some filet mignon, poor guy...

    September 10, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      Most women prefer thin men over muscles.

      September 10, 2014 at 9:41 pm | Reply
      • Rob

        Negative. All kinds of women like all different forms of men. Don't buy into the marketing mindset of the past three and a half decades. What is beautiful in a women? I don't know until I see it. Beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. It is an individual preference.

        September 10, 2014 at 10:28 pm |
    • but did you see most French people?

      I was in France, for several months, recently. Just looking around me, at railway stations, and at other public places, I could not help but notice how THIN most Frean people are! And they eat lots of bread too. They actually stand in line at a Boulangeie, on he way home from work, every evening, just to buy a fresh Baguette........ how do they do it??? Maybe its the cost of food in Paris???

      September 10, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Reply
    • Prairie Girl

      Lol ... You may find dr Gupta as Famine struck kid ... But dont forget when you or someone close to you ever ends up in operation theatre ( God forbid ) then your life will be in the hands of a surgeon most likely to be Indian ( and poverty stricken etc etc ).

      September 10, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  8. Brent Barker

    Bogus logic. First he claims humans weren't designed to eat sugar and we were limited by availability of fruits in season and honey. Later he claims that a slice of bread and packet of sugar are indistiguishable by the body therefore equivalent. Then by extension he should just say carbohydrates are worse than fat.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Reply
    • radar8

      Not all carbohydrates. Bleached wheat flower with no bran is a big problem. Basically, simple carbohydrates are the same to your body as sugar, but you can eat other carbohydrates, like Quinoa.

      Natural, unprocessed food is the way to go. Fresh fruit is good for you. The important part is that it is the whole fruit, not just pasteurized juice. Fresh vegetables. Fresh meat, poultry and fish are good for you.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • fseque83

      No s**t Sherlock that's exactly what he's saying, Carbs are worse than fat

      September 11, 2014 at 12:05 am | Reply
    • bambibones

      Actually, a slice of white bread and a packet of sugar ARE very similar in their effect on blood sugar. The bread contains starch which is quickly broken down into glucose, which is blood sugar. This is what the glycemic index (and its derivatives) measures.

      September 11, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  9. Sylvie

    Everything in moderation and you'll be just fine.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Reply
    • Philip

      Watch out. Quoting Bible scripture will get you tarred and feathered around here.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Reply
      • Robin

        That is not a quote from the Bible.

        September 10, 2014 at 10:56 pm |
  10. opinionated

    bottom line is to get off your duff and do physical work, grow your own garden, can your own fruits and veg(this gets you off your duff), cook from scratch and have a little self restraint. this is more about self control than most realize. I am going to be 52 in a month, I wear the same size clothes as when I graduated in 1981, I work my tail off and do all the above. I cook with bacon grease lard and butter. I use real sugar, nothing artificial.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:39 pm | Reply
    • Philip

      Get a clue. Most Americans live in apartment homes with no available land for gardening.
      Big deal you eat sugar and lard. I eat fruits and grains and live green veggies and am 55. And have been to see an MD once in my life; to be born.
      I avoid pharmacy products and food supplements like the plague. These are where my good health comes from. Not genetics or going to the gym.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:04 pm | Reply
      • LaBella

        🎶Fool get a clue, get a clue, get a clue.🎶

        September 10, 2014 at 10:43 pm |
      • Rob

        Most Americans do not live in apartments. And if you haven't been to a doctor since you were born you are playing Russian Roulette. Even if your diet is spot on there is still genetics to be considered. You sir, are a troll, mentally ill, or both.

        September 10, 2014 at 11:00 pm |
      • LaBella

        September 10, 2014 at 11:10 pm |
  11. opinionated

    oh did I mention that's a size 3 jeans and 123lbs???

    September 10, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Reply
  12. rupert

    And that's the way it is, September 20th, 2014.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:43 pm | Reply
  13. rupert cronkite

    And that's the way it is, September 10, 2014.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  14. Richard

    You can crow or complain about it all you want. Science-illiterate goons can pretend there is a difference between refined sugar and eating an apple. But in the end, it's your weak genetics, what kind of genes an susceptibilities you inherit that will do you in, not whatever it is you eat.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Reply
    • Philip

      BS. If you use mind altering prescription drugs too much your body will suffer and your brain will slowly turn to mush. No matter what you eat or what genes you were born with.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:06 pm | Reply
    • bambibones

      Although I may not agree with your pejorative language, you are correct that eating SOME fruits is as bad for your blood glucose levels is as bad as some refined sugars.

      September 11, 2014 at 11:24 am | Reply
  15. Philip

    Bottom line is to stop using pharmacy products that interfere with natural sleep and so cause weight gain.
    It's not Sugar vs. Fat. It is America's growing nationwide obesity epidemic vs. Healthcare System. Over 40% of all health care costs are because of obesity.
    It's Fruits&Grains and LIVE green veggies vs. Red Meat & Dairy products and Bread.

    September 10, 2014 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  16. rupert

    You are both so right. I have border line high BP. My father? Not even close. He is at near perfection. Some people are born with incredible genes. True Richard.
    And obesity is slowly killing many Americans. What can be expected from a rich country of buffets and up-size your combo with all the soda you can stuff down your throat. True Philip.

    September 10, 2014 at 10:06 pm | Reply
    • bambibones

      Do you realize that 50% of your genes came from your father? Or that 50% of his genes are yours?

      This is the worst possible argument that conditions are genetic, not environmental.

      September 11, 2014 at 11:26 am | Reply
  17. rupert

    Ok. Great. I hope to have the last post until the morning. Gonna do my walter cronkite thing now. Good night.

    September 10, 2014 at 10:09 pm | Reply
    • Philip

      Good night, Rupert. Don't forget to shed a few tears for the oppressed and abused. Tears do for the heat what perspiration does for the body; rid of excess fat and rid of toxins that cause heart problems.

      hand is why Jesus who was soft hearted cried bitterly and often.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:12 pm | Reply
      • Philip

        *And is why..., rather.

        September 10, 2014 at 10:14 pm |
  18. rupert cronkite

    .And that's the way it is, September 10, 2014.

    September 10, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  19. czamdesigner

    Another BS so called medical report over Sugar. Let's get to the truth and the nations real problems, like Corn Syrup in everything and Soy and Wheat that is all been modified through being a GMO plants. Food allergies and obesity are at the highest ever in recorded history. This so called medical research doesn't break it down the sugar from corn syrup. Till is does this is all BS plain and simple.

    September 10, 2014 at 10:14 pm | Reply
    • Philip

      Not to mention over 200,000 of US dying from allergic reactions to pharmacy drugs. About 20,000 die each year from street drug use, by comparison.

      September 10, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Reply
      • Philip

        About 40,000 Americans die each year in auto accidents. Over twice that many due from medical malpractice.

        September 10, 2014 at 10:20 pm |
      • Philip

        *die because of MD malpractice, rather.

        September 10, 2014 at 10:21 pm |
      • Rob

        To make that bold of a claim, I would expect links showing statistics.

        September 10, 2014 at 11:04 pm |
  20. rupert

    Yep. Corn syrup bad. 200,000 of us dying. Thanks guys. Getting late. Go to sleep.

    September 10, 2014 at 10:22 pm | Reply
  21. rupert

    ...And that's the way it is, September 10, 2014.

    September 10, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  22. rupert cronkite

    And finally, sugar has been found to be bad for you.
    And that's the way it is, September 10, 2014.

    September 10, 2014 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  23. go to bed Walter

    go to bed Walter..... and don't take any zinc pills with you, unless imaginary chrissy is with you tonight, ok?

    September 10, 2014 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  24. Aaron

    Evolved? What is sanjay talking about? Repent

    September 10, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  25. VHS

    Eat less move more..

    September 10, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Reply
  26. Shreekesh

    Dr. Gupta have ever done research on widespread use of microwave and it's effect on health ?

    September 10, 2014 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  27. smanaher

    Thank you so much for this video! I hope this message gets spread!

    In the last 6 months since I have radically reduced sugar intake, I have lost close to 50 lbs, feel better than ever and did it with minimal exercise.... It's been all about the sugar intake.

    September 10, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  28. barb'sbarb

    How about NOT eating the fatty, fried foods OR the sugary foods..... Gee, what a simple concept....

    September 10, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Reply
  29. rupert cronkite

    Finally, experts from New Zealand have concluded from a study conducted on rats and humans that, "...eating less and moving more" resulted in a longer and healthier life span for both.

    September 10, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  30. Sid

    I disagree with this article. The conversion of sugar to LDL in the body is a very inefficient process. If someone doesn't eat animal products in their diet but is consuming a high amount of soda, their LDL will still be remarkably low. Cholesterol is only found in an animal. There is no cholesterol in any plant.

    September 10, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Reply
    • bambibones

      The conversion of sugar to LDL's may be insignificant, but high blood glucose levels are strongly correlated with heart disease.

      September 11, 2014 at 11:29 am | Reply
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