Food & nutrition Wellness

Sugar and salt and fats — oh my

three bowls - fat, salt and sugar
Written by Alexis Dobranowski

I try my best to eat healthy. Well, OK, maybe not in the summer patio season. Or the winter holiday season. Or when there are treats in the lunchroom.

But, I do at the very least try to stay up-to-date about the latest in nutrition information.

Lately, though, I’ve been a more confused than ever about healthy foods. Between news stories about sugar and fats, a new Canada Food Guide, and a bunch of Netflix documentaries each claiming some kind of food group is the devil, I’m not too sure what I should be focusing my attention on and keeping off my plate.

I spoke with registered dietitian Daphna Steinberg at Sunnybrook for some help: What’s the worst for me? Sugar, salt or fat?

“This is a complicated question,” she said, kind of as I expected. “Each has it’s issues.”

Here’s what else she had to say to help us understand each of these offending groups.

What’s the issue with eating too much salt?

About 50 per cent of Canadians are what’s called “sodium sensitive”. This means that eating too much salt will raise their blood pressure, which can put them at risk of developing heart disease or strokes.

What’s the issue with eating too much sugar?

Eating too much sugar can increase your risk for developing obesity and diabetes.

What’s the issue with eating too much fat?

Fat has a lot of calories, so eating too much total fat can lead to obesity. The challenge with choosing low fat versions of foods such as yogurts or peanut butters, among other things, is that the fat is often replaced with sugar or cornstarch to maintain the texture of the foods. So just switching to low fat isn’t a great option. Another challenge with fats is the type of fat: not all fats are created equal.

Can you remind us what’s the difference between saturated, unsaturated fats, and trans fats, please?

Saturated fats (those that are solid at room temperature) are found in foods like butter, coconut oil and meat. These increase unhealthy cholesterol.

Trans fats are made from hydrogenated vegetable oils and are found in things like packaged baked goods, hard margarine and snack foods. Trans fats not only increase unhealthy cholesterol but can actually cause heart disease.

Most unsaturated fats (those that are liquid at room temperature) like olive or canola oil are healthy and may actually improve cholesterol levels.

What’s the fat in fish? That’s a good fat too, right?

Yes, that’s another healthy fat: omega-3 fat. It is an essential fat, meaning that our bodies can’t produce it so we must get it from food. We know that omega-3 fat helps to decrease a fat in blood called triglycerides and improve blood pressure. It’s found in fatty fish like salmon or trout, and also in nuts and seeds such as chia or flax.

Where can we go to find good, reliable info about this kind of stuff? I feel like every time I read an article, it says the opposite!

The mainstream news can be confusing when it comes to reports on nutritional studies. Speaking to a registered dietitian is your best, most reliable source of information for nutrition information, as we know how to interpret the science and take more than the latest headlines, but the whole body of research into account in our recommendation and make them apply to foods that individuals eat. On Eat Right Ontario and you can email a registered dietitian for free. Or, visit Dietitians of Canada for more info.

Are there any good “rules of thumb” so to speak about salt, sugar or fat?

This rule may be disappointing for some, as it’s likely what you’ve heard since you were a child: moderation in all things.



About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.