September 9, 2019/Heart Health

Which Is Worse for You: Fat or Sugar?

What you need to know about these food felons

fat vs sugar

One day you read that whole-fat dairy products are less likely to contribute to cardiovascular disease than low-fat dairy products. The next day, your doctor tells you fat is unhealthy and recommends a low-fat diet. Then you read that fat isn’t as bad for you as sugar. What are you supposed to believe?

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

The American Heart Association (AHA), which keeps abreast of research on topics like this, gives both dietary components a thumbs-down.

“Both fat and sugar are bad for you,” says preventive cardiology dietitian Kate Patton, RD, LD. “However, we are talking about saturated fats, trans fats and added sugars. This is where some of the confusion lies.”

Which fats are bad?

Saturated fats and trans fats are bad for you, period. Both prompt the creation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the type that causes coronary artery disease (CAD). Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol levels, decrease “good” high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels and cause inflammation, which accelerates the development of coronary artery disease (CAD).

Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products They are also found in certain oils derived from plants, including coconut oil and palm oil.

If you need to lower your cholesterol, the AHA recommends you consume no more than 5 to 6% of your calories as saturated fats. Otherwise, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat to no more than 10% of total calories.

On the other hand, no amount of trans fat is safe to eat. Trans fats are not found in nature. They are a byproduct of the process that turns healthy oils into solid fats, such as margarine, and prevent bakery goods from going rancid.

And which fats are good?

Most people find a fat-free diet too hard to follow. The good news is that you don’t have to forgo all fats to stay healthy. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats actually are good for your heart.

According to the AHA, replacing saturated fats in your diet with poly- and monounsaturated fats can lower the rate of cardiovascular disease. In other words, making the switch can have the same effect as taking statins.

Advertisement

“It’s good to incorporate these good fats into your diet, keeping in mind that all fats have 9 calories per gram,” says Patton.

Good sources of monounsaturated fats include olive oil, canola oil, avocados and nuts.

Omega-3 and omega-6 are types of polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that the body cannot make. They reduce risk of blood clots and lower inflammation. Sources of omega-3 fat include fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, and walnuts and flaxseeds.

Omega-6 fats build healthy cells and nerve fibers. Sources include soybean, corn, sunflower and safflower oils.

Why sugar’s not so sweet

Sugar straddles the line between healthy and unhealthy.

Some forms of sugar occur naturally in foods such as fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose).These are safe when consumed as part of a balanced, healthy diet.

The concern is primarily with added sugars. These are sugars (usually sucrose) that do not appear naturally in foods, but are added for taste. Sugar is the main attraction in foods such as candy, cookies and ice cream. Sugar also is hidden in unlikely places, including breads, cereals and tomato sauces. This makes it very easy to consume large amounts of sugar unknowingly.

Advertisement

“Excess intake of sugar is associated with increased risk of diabetes, obesity and hypertriglyceridemia,” says Patton.

Dietary guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture recommend women consume no more than 100 calories (six teaspoons or 25 grams) of added sugar a day. For men, it’s 150 calories (nine teaspoons or 36 grams).

Make sure you keep track!

Most manufactured products as well as restaurant and frozen foods contain sugar or fat for taste. This means many low-sugar products can have a high fat content, and low-fat products may have added sugar. How can you find out what’s in your food?

“I suggest reading nutrition facts labels, especially the ingredient list, and using an app to help you see where your calories are coming from,” says Patton.

This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Bowl of assorted fruit and bowls of nuts and seeds
The Best Foods To Eat When You Have Breast Cancer

Stay hydrated, opt for fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean protein — and try to eat snacks and smaller meals throughout your day instead of larger portions

person standing in front of taped off refrigerator thinking about food and watching the time
March 5, 2024/Nutrition
6 Tips for Fasting Safely

Plan ahead by hydrating, cutting back on sugar and managing medications

Flaxseed sprinkled on a salad in a white bowl on a dark wooden table
January 31, 2024/Nutrition
Flaxseed: A Little Seed With Big Health Benefits

Ground flaxseed is full of heart-healthy omega-3s, antioxidants and fiber, and easy to add to just about any recipe

Four pieces of cooked chicken in an air fryer
January 22, 2024/Nutrition
Are Air Fryers Healthy?

The popular cooking method can help you cut down on fat without losing the flavor and texture of your favorite foods

Person eating healthy bowl of noodles with fitness items floating around head
January 17, 2024/Weight Loss
How To Shed 10 Pounds — For Good!

Actively choose healthy habits not only when it comes to food and nutrition, but also physical activity and your mental health

assorted vessels of olive oil on a wooden table with olives in spoon
January 16, 2024/Nutrition
6 Major Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

EVOO is full of antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties, both of which aid your body in multiple ways

close-up of plate with eggs, wheat toast, avocados, hands holding knife and fork
January 9, 2024/Weight Loss
Does Reverse Dieting Work?

This strategy doesn’t boost metabolism, but it may help maintain weight loss

A closeup of a mix of different kinds of candy, all thrown together.
November 19, 2023/Nutrition
Candy Crush: Why You’re Craving Sweets and How To Stop

Stress, lack of sleep and not eating enough all contribute to sugar hankerings

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey

Ad