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My take on the BBC’s ‘Horizon – Sugar v Fat’

Sugar V FatOne thing that’s cool about being known as ‘the health guy’ among your friends and colleagues is that they keep you updated with things on the topic of fitness and nutrition that appear in the public eye.

My clients will read about battle ropes and want to hear my view. My family will read an article about butter v margarine and ask my opinion. A friend will spot something about decluttering and forward it on. In this case, pretty much everyone told me about the BBC’s show on Sugar v Fat. That meant I had no choice but to watch it.

And what I saw was very interesting indeed. In fact, I really enjoyed watching the show. So, in my usual quite random way, here’s some of my observations.

My biggest issue – it takes time to get fat adapted, so the test was unfair
To be fair to the handsome, dashing, posh twin doctors Chris and Xand Van Tulleken, they repeatedly said throughout the show that the experiment couldn’t be scientifically conclusive. An experiment involving two people is interesting, but it takes an experiment involving thousands to produce conclusive results…and even then it’s difficult. Just read Ben Goldacre’s books to find out why.

To explain the biggest issue further, I can use my own experience. When I first ditched the grains back in August 2011, I was taking part in a bootcamp in Brentwood. I was one of the better participants, always near the front(ish) in the sprints, the endurance sessions, and the strength work. When I originally started eating primally, I went cold turkey (pun sort-of intended). One day, I was a (fat, tired) sugar-eating carb hound, the next I just decided enough was enough and I went for it with a high protein, high fat, low carb diet. Two weeks later, I went to bootcamp and was a wreck. I could barely sprint, had no power, and my endurance had gone to pieces. And at work, I was sluggish, tired, and definitely noticed some brain fog.

Six weeks later, I was performing even better than I was before – at bootcamp, and at work.

Why? Because it takes time to become fat adapted. Your body has to go through the withdrawal of not having a constant supply of glucose and learn how to utilise your fat stores to create energy. So, when Fat Twin was asked to perform a mental task two weeks in, he struggled massively. When Fat v Sugar Twins took on a cycling challenge, Sugar Twin won.

But that’s because the starting point was wrong. Sugar Twin had a regular diet on start day minus 1. That means carb heavy, with some protein and fat. Fat Twin also had a regular diet on start day minus 1. That means Sugar Twin’s body just carried on as normal, albeit with even more fuel that it was used to, while Fat Twin’s body had to go through a huge adjustment that takes weeks and weeks. This, for me, makes the experiment, and therefore the results, pretty worthless.

And don’t forget they were in bad shape to begin with!
We don’t learn about what their diet was beforehand, but we can assume it was pretty standard. The pretty standard diet, followed by two highly trained doctors, got one to obese levels and one to borderline obese. What does that say about our standard diet in the first place?!

It wasn’t Sugar v Fat
This wasn’t Sugar v Fat. The nutritionist was spot on when she described how the body treats all carbohydrate foods as glucose. But most of the ‘fat’ foods that we saw Fat Twin eating were actually pretty protein rich. Take an egg for example. There’s around 6g of protein and 5g of fat. That makes the title of the show misleading, really. And it works the other way too – the processed foods would contain all sorts of weird chemicals and trans-fats, not just carbs. Then again, ‘Predominantly Carbohydrate Foods Which Are Likely To Contain Trans-Fats And Other Nasties v Fat And Protein-Rich Foods Of Varying Qualities” wouldn’t have been so catchy.

There was no accounting for food quality
Not all carbs are bad carbs. Not all fats are bad fats. And not all sausages are created equal. When Fat Twin was tucking into his sausage and bacon, was it pasture-raised pork? Was it organic? Were the eggs from pasture-raised chickens? Was the butter from grass-fed cows? Was the steak grass-fed beef? These things are important as they radically change the effect that the foods can have on your body. Food quality matters.

Dr Lustig was good on Insulin
Understanding the role of insulin in the body is vital in understanding how your body gets fat, and how fat leads to lifestyle related diseases. This article in The Guardian about Lustig’s new book is a good primer, but any paleo or primal book (The Primal Blueprint is a great starting point) will help.

They made an excellent point about losing weight – that shouldn’t be the aim
One of the twins lost weight, but that turned out to be a pretty unhappy mix of losing fat, water AND muscle. That’s bad, and it’s a great thing to highlight. Most people who see me in my role as a Personal Trainer say “I want to lose weight” when what they really mean is “I want to lose fat.” The number you see on the bathroom scales in the morning is largely irrelevant – it’s the body fat percentage that we’re trying to reduce. This also links to one of my fundamental principles that I try to teach people – don’t lose weight to get healthy. Get healthy to lose weight. If you do that, you’ll be losing the right kind of weight – fat.

It’s the fat AND the sugar…sort of
I really liked the point they made on the problem coming when you combine fat with sugar. They used the example of cheesecake (which I’ve had problems with before…) and described how rats lose their ‘off switch’ when given this combination. The fat and sugar together supercharge the brain’s reward system, giving amazing pleasure in the moment but also overruling the complex hormonal mechanisms that our bodies have in place to tell us when we’re full. This is a really important point, and I thought they did this section well. Cheesecake used to be one of my favourite foods, so it was enlightening to find out that it was the perfect storm. However, coconut oil combined with blueberries is ‘fat and sugar’. That’s not what we’re talking about here, and the oversimplification is confusing. What we really mean is the combination of trans-fats (as found in processed foods) and refined sugar – that’s the mind-blowingly damaging concoction – a concoction that the twins rightly note doesn’t exist in nature.

There were other factors involved…there always are
Fat Twin came to London to have his body pod measurement thingy taken, which was cool to see. But then, at some stage before his cognitive test on Wall Street, he had to fly back to New York. Depending on when that happened, he could have been jetlagged (I find west to east with a 5-8hr time difference one of the toughest to adapt to), dehydrated and sleep-deprived. Plus, as the experiment was in two completely different environments, how could they be fair? The offices could have been different temperatures, with differences in natural light, with more or less distracting noises. Fat Twin might not have slept the night before because of a noisy neighbour. One might have had a double espresso. Sugar Twin might have had a full-body massage followed by 12 hours uninterrupted sleep the previous night. There are always other factors to take into consideration.

The glucose tolerance test was like a magic act
Hey! Look over here! Sugar Twin is making more insulin and therefore his body has responded to dealing with sugar much better. Hooray! Now look away! Quick! Oohhh! Look at the shiny toy over there!

Ummm…did you say his body is making more insulin to deal with the increased amount of sugar he is eating? Errr….doesn’t this sound a little bit like a giant step on the path towards insulin resistance?

It was a shame to hear…
The ‘it’s about a balanced diet’ line rolled out as part of the conclusion. No, it’s not. It’s a meaningless phrase. A ‘balanced diet’ is what got us to where we are now. Just eat real food. That’s a bit clearer.

The scariest part
“What’s amazing to me about this is that I’ve been a doctor for ten years, I spent six years at medical school, and I thought I knew a lot of this stuff and I just didn’t.” One of the twins.

This is huge. Doctors don’t learn enough about nutrition and the effect food has on the body. To me, this is a good reminder that you can’t rely on your GP to give you the dietary advice you need. You have to take your health into your own hands and do your own research. If I have a chest infection, I want a GP. If I want to know how to be healthy, I have to do my own research.

I want to make a BBC documentary
Whenever I see a BBC documentary these days about food, diets or nutrition, it inevitably involves lots of travel. ‘To test this theory, I went to a beach in the Maldives to find out if cocktails really are as bad as the media would have you believe.” “I travelled to San Francisco to speak to a guy as we strolled through Pier 39 even though we could have done it in a ton of other more inexpensive ways.” “The only way to test whether or not cheesecake is good for me was to go to the cheesecake capital of the world, which I decided would be Maui, buy fifty different varieties of cheesecake, and then fly them to New Zealand to taste them in the mountains.” I could totally do that job.

So what can we conclude here? Well, it was good TV. There were some good points in there, but overall, the challenge was a bit misleading. On the plus side, it got plenty of people that I know talking about food, and many of them don’t consider sugar or processed foods to be ‘evil’. This may have opened their eyes somewhat. On the downside, despite the acknowledgement that you can’t reach a definite conclusion, people will, which always makes this kind of TV tricky to advocate. It’s a bit like learning history from Downton Abbey – you might get a bit of an idea of what happened, but essentially the main focus is good TV and a nice story.

Did you watch it? What do you think? Are you done with cheesecake yet? Let me know…




  1. CG February 20, 2014 Reply

    Oooh, the site is looking so pretty! I normally read the posts through Feedly or Pocket and miss out on the lovely bells & whistles 🙂

    • Author
      Keith Porter February 20, 2014 Reply

      Well we’re glad you like it, lady! Thanks for the compliments!

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