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 (487 Responses)
  1. Chris

    I understand to cut down on sugar, but it doesn't mean you have to go on a gluten-free or carb-free diet. Carbs are the body's main source of energy, and experts recommend consuming about 40% of it in your daily diet. If you want to lose weight, eat fewer calories but keep a balanced diet, and also exercise more. That's it.

    September 11, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • Greg

      Chris, 40% would actually be about a bare minimum. A more optimum percentage would be in the 80% carbs 10% fats 10% protein area with about 5% wiggle either way with all of them. A plant-based diet is the way to go.
      Check these out: http://www.nealbarnard.org
      http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/vegetarian-foods-powerful-for-health

      September 11, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Reply
      • Greg

        80% carbs?!?!?! You're high

        September 11, 2014 at 4:21 pm |
    • egyptjax

      Chris Carbs are a NON essential makro nutrient, the body can make glucose from other sources, plus i believe glucose is not the preferred fuel for the body and actually ketones are. the body will run best on both. which does not mean NO carbs but rather LOW er carbs. as far as grains are concerned, they are toxic because of anti nutrients, which are the grains natural defence mechanism, taken in high volumes as we do it becomes toxic for the body, not to mention the effects of massive amounts of insulin in your body.

      August 27, 2016 at 10:19 am | Reply
  2. Hungry Hungry Hippos

    Gupta once again shows what a joke he is.

    September 11, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • i have seen the light

      Enjoy your obesity and diabeties! It's annoying that well-informed and healthy people like me have to pull the rest of you slugs along but that's life, I guess.

      September 11, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Reply
      • Me

        Agree!

        September 11, 2014 at 1:34 pm |
  3. Me

    Here is a solution stop eating fast food laden with sugar and fat. Actually try to stop being lazy morons and cook at home with healthy, nature ingredients. If you don't want to believe scientist and keep ingesting loads of sugars, fats, and carbs go right ahead and die early. People need to start taking responsibility for there laziness and quit whining when they hear that all the cr@p they eat is bad for them, because we don't want to be told that McDonald's, potato chips, and sugary carb laden cereals are bad for us we just want to sue them when we become obese.

    September 11, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  4. djranger

    The human body is calorie burning machine. Our bodies and our metabolism has evolved over thousands of years to efficiently burn calories. Back when humans were predominantly hunter-gatherers, we burned so many calories just to find and consume calories, there was little excess. Our diets consisted of raw, live plants and high-protein meats and nuts. Today, our bodies retain their calorie-burning efficiency, yet we have diets high in sugars (processed white grains, fructose) and our need for calories drives our cravings. We have to train ourselves to break the cycle of sugar by replacing it with healthy, nutritious alternatives. Energy drinks and sodas are the worse! You can eat all the healthy calories you want – you just need to burn them with an active lifestyle – like our bodies are deigned to do. If you're not into exercise and have a sedentary lifestyle, then don't eat so much. Ironically, if you start eating healthier, you have more energy and you will have a healthier, happier life. It worked for me. I also dropped the 8-10 lbs I'd been carrying around for years. Didn't have to buy into an expensive diet plan, I just needed to develop some awareness and discipline in what I put into my body.

    September 11, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  5. John

    We definitely are getting fatter. And as the western diet, and it's methods of food production spread worldwide, other countries are going to be getting fat. The thing that's worse, however, is that we are still all dying prematurely of the same thing. Heart disease, stroke, brain diseases, and cancer. Until we also attempt to combat the inflammation that occurs in our bodies due to the crap we eat, we're still going to be dying of the same things even as we become "thinner". Simply looking healthy superficially does equate to actual good health.

    September 11, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Reply
    • Eternal Satyr

      Well said, John!

      September 11, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Reply
    • puddintane

      Thats as good as fixed, as soon as dope is legalized all diseases will go away. Just check out the facts on the Web

      September 11, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  6. dp002

    I suppose he assumes that since we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, everyone's body works exactly the same.. Also, why doesn't he say anything about statins? Let's see? My body needs more insulin, so it starts making cholesterol as a building block for insulin. Let me just hinder my bodies ability to make more insulin so I can get my cholesterol number to what the same people tell me it needs to be. Don't worry, we have some diabetes medicine you can take for that.
    Oh, and when your body doesn't have the cholesterol it needs to make Testosterone, I am sure there will be a low T store near by.
    Maybe that is not what's going on, but I'll go with that over some expert whose theory changes every few years.

    September 11, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Reply
    • Robert

      it ain't that simple hotshot

      September 11, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • aurora

      you really need to take a basic biology class. perhaps you can watch some educational videos on youtube, like khan academy.

      September 11, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • bambibones

      Insulin is made from protein, not from cholesterol.

      September 11, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Reply
    • musclecarhound

      Well if you're not descendant from Adam and Eve you are an alien in the truest form of the word and I am sure Ted Cruz is looking for you.

      September 11, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Reply
      • dike

        another religious fanatic....

        September 11, 2014 at 7:19 pm |
  7. Robert

    about friggin time!

    September 11, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  8. SamO

    Just like the modern-day global warming "scientists" call opposition nut jobs and "deniers", scientists 40 years ago said the same thing about Dr. Robert Atkins and his "New Diet Revolution", which pointed to sugar and other quick-burn carbs such as white bread, white rice and potatoes as the culprit for the obese. I'm happy to see that people science has finally caught up to the good doctor!

    September 11, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Reply
    • mike

      So in your delusional mind, this proves global warming is fake?

      Darwin called, he wants you to go play in traffic.

      September 11, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Reply
      • Joe

        Not necessarily, but it does show that science is never as "settled" as is often claimed. The global warming (errr–climate change) folks won't even accept that there's another possibility. About 20 years ago Al Gore claimed we only had 10 years to cut carbon emissions before it was too late. Was he right? If so, we should be planning to adapt to the change, not try to reverse the "unreversible". Mars is also experiencing global warming. How does man-made atmospheric carbon on earth cause that? All of the warming models of 10 years ago projected higher temperatures than we've experienced. Clearly, even the scientists don't fully understand what's going on, and there is something else besides carbon levels causing any warming. Yet, the "science is settled" so we can't even have that conversation without being dismissed as "deniers".

        September 11, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
      • mosinnagant2

        That doesn't prove it's fake. The expanding ice caps do.

        September 11, 2014 at 6:01 pm |
      • Bones

        Funniest thing I've read today. Thanks!

        September 11, 2014 at 10:56 pm |
      • Bones

        Also, Mos, the icecaps are receding, not expanding. Just sayin'. Deniers just need to ask themselves, how much of a thing can you dump into a closed system and not affect the system? It doesn't really matter if you believe the results. Try just believing that. I mean, Earth + industrialized chemicals cannot equal no change at all.

        September 11, 2014 at 11:00 pm |
  9. Chris C

    So I suppose eating say a 48 ounce bag of M&Ms in many weeks in a year, washed down with Mountain Dew isn't such a good idea?

    I'm curbing this after having done that for about 15 years and I'm showing now signs of cholesterol problems (aside from good cholesterol being too low at one point), and blood fasting sugar levels always look fine.

    September 11, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Reply
    • Todd

      Your good Cholesterol is low probably due to lack of cardiovascular activity. Your body only converts it when you are engaged in physical activity. I am assuming based on your previous diet that you probably were pretty sedentary. Start slow, but work up to doing a few hours of cardio a week and you will see the good cholesterol rise.

      It's another change in culture that our bodies are slow to adjust to, working in offices, sitting down, next to a computer all day, you don't get the excercise you used to get even 30-40 years ago at work.

      September 11, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  10. Thomas

    Just thinking of a few fish taco's from Ensenada ,Known as the "Cenicienta del Pacífico". Known as the “Cinderella of the Pacific”, along with a cold bottle of Mexican pure cain coco cola , is making me hungry .

    can't wait for lunchtime to roll around !

    Hey Sanjay , are you saying , if the the Ebola don't get us , the sugar will ?

    September 11, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  11. bambibones

    Sugar most definitely gets turned into fat when there is more in the blood than can be immediately oxidized or stored as glycogen. It's a long, complicated biochemical pathway and it may make some detours down completely different pathways, but excess calories always end up as fat, no matter their source.

    September 11, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Reply
    • Peter Griffin

      "Sugar most definitely gets turned into fat when there is more in the blood than can be immediately oxidized or stored as glycogen.." Yes, sugar will turn into fat in this instance but it is almost impossible to get to this state unless you are already a diabetic or insulin resistant and in the case of insulin resistance, the conversion to fat is not even close to significant. For about 85 percent of the population, the body has an incredible ability to store all glucose as glycogen makingt fat conversion a non issue. If your glycogen stores are filled to the max then some glucose will turn to fat but it is almost impossible to get to the point where the body cannot store glucose as glycogen.

      September 12, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  12. Neil

    Two useful data points in this discussion:

    – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM

    – "The Cholesterol Delusion" by Dr. Ernest Curtis (Cardiologist)
    http://www.amazon.com/Cholesterol-Delusion-Ernest-N-Curtis/dp/1608447480/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410462999&sr=1-1&keywords=cholesterol+Delusion

    September 11, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  13. mike

    Too much sugar, but sugar is still better than HFCS. People can say that HFCS is the same until they are blue in the face, but multiple studies have proven that the liver handles it differently from natural sugar.

    So, in order of importance:
    1) cut back on HFCS and other lab-sugars...your liver hates them
    2) cut back on natural sugar, and yes, this includes fruit and fruit juice
    3) cut back on simple carbs
    4) cut back on fat

    September 11, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • i have seen the light

      Spot on with 1, 2 and 3.

      But just saying "cut back on fat" leaves much to be desired – it's much more nuanced than that. Trans fats – yes, avoid like the plague because that's what they are. Satured fats (Omega 3 fish oil, coconut oil, avacado, nuts and seeds, butter, olive oil, etc.), on the other hand, are a good thing and necessary for optimnal health.

      Be well!

      September 11, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Reply
      • i have seen the light

        Satured=saturated, apologies.

        September 11, 2014 at 4:13 pm |
      • Veronica

        @ I have seen the light....you got that a little backwards. Any fat that is solid at room temperature is saturated fat. Any kind of oil (oil, coconut, avocado) which is still liquid a room temperature is UNsaturated

        September 11, 2014 at 4:53 pm |
      • mosinnagant2

        I agree. 1,2 and 3 are correct but the only fats that are really bad for you are trans fats.

        September 11, 2014 at 6:05 pm |
    • dike

      European countries were smart to ban GMO and you can buy coke there with sugar. The only major brand drink in the us you can get with sugar is sierra mist the rest are GMO HFCS.

      September 11, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Reply
  14. aj

    Dont eat this. Dont eat that. What's left?

    September 11, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Reply
    • dike

      yesterdays leftovers in the fridge.

      September 11, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Reply
  15. baker

    Look at every box/can/bottle of food in your house. See the nutritional label that tells you how much of what is in the box/can/bottle? Does it tell you the daily amount of sugar? It's there for sodium, carbs, fat.... Do you think it ight be because you wouldn't buy the product if you knew it had 200% of the amount of sugar you sould be eating in one day?

    September 11, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  16. The Poop Queen

    I eat poop. Does that count?

    September 11, 2014 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  17. Castro

    Fat ass Americans

    September 11, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  18. mosinnagant2

    For those of you struggling to cut back on sugar try eating more protein or even taking protein supplements. Protein triggers the same receptors in the brain as sugar does and is a much slower burning healthier source of energy (not to mention it helps build muscles). This worked for me when I was trying to cut way back on sugar and was having "withdrawals". Why do you think people with diabetes have problems with their vision and blood circulation to their limbs? Because the sugar they are eating is literally causing damage to the small blood vessels in the eyes and extremities.

    September 11, 2014 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  19. Patty O' Melt

    Go back to eating a more basic diet, meats, vegetable, fruits, and eliminate as much fast food and processed foods as possible and problem is solved. Many of the health problems we have today did not exist before fast food and processed foods were invented.

    September 11, 2014 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  20. Thomas

    John McCain wants an apology for being told Diet soda is good for maintaining a full head of hair .

    September 11, 2014 at 6:33 pm | Reply
    • dike

      I remember him saying I am not going to tell you "I told you so". Such a looser. no wonder his kids are so messed up, everyone in his family pointing fingers and saying I told you so.

      September 11, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  21. gstlab3

    Carbohydrates should also be considered a source of pure sugar and put on a nutrition label as such.
    All flour turns into sugar once eaten and that causes an insulin spike in your blood and eventually metabolic syndrome.

    The over consumption of sugars and carbohydrates causes inflamation which in turn encourages diseases like cancer.

    September 11, 2014 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  22. laserw

    With the logic used against Sugar by Gupta, we shouldn't be consuming vegetables or fruit – only available during limited times during the year, our bodies weren't meant to eat them year round. Meat is available all year round. Put that in your pipe and smoke it vegetarians and gupta sycophants.

    September 11, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Reply
    • ManEater

      you're totally right!

      September 12, 2014 at 12:45 am | Reply
  23. conrad

    because the sugar is a slow poison

    September 11, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  24. Todd

    Switched to low carb High fat diet on july... lost 40 lbs and feel better than ever before. So much easier than in the old days.

    September 11, 2014 at 9:16 pm | Reply
    • Philip

      As we burn Nigeria's oil on our SUVs, am sure starved children are overly thrilled to learn of your weight loss.
      Am so proud of you, young man. Well done! Lose a few more dozen pounds and disappear!

      September 11, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Reply
      • LaBella

        They're finally talking about one of your pet little topics, and you manage to still act like a little twunt. Piccione.

        September 11, 2014 at 10:41 pm |
      • rupert

        Yea. Disappear. I'm sure starving kids will appreciate you losing 40 pounds of lard.
        Now make tracks.

        September 12, 2014 at 4:29 am |
  25. Philip

    Why fat is wayyyy worse than not fat.

    September 11, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  26. chri§§y

    Typical bundle of cheerfulness aint you Pope Philip! Get a freakin clue yourself "little man"!

    September 11, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Reply
  27. Mary Burger

    Many of u need spend more time getting educated and less time giving your pathetic opinions.
    Stop embarrassing yourselves!

    September 12, 2014 at 12:37 am | Reply
    • LaBella

      "Many of u need spend more time getting educated ..."
      Mary Burger wins today's Irony Award.

      September 12, 2014 at 11:14 am | Reply
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