The Sugar-Fat Seesaw: Why Diet Guidelines are Hard to Swallow

If you’ve ever read the National Dietary Guidelines you’ll probably agree they’re too difficult to put into practice, and now a new analysis has confirmed that fact.

If you head over to the US Health and Human Services website you can grab yourself a copy of the most current Dietary Guidelines for Americans as created by the USDA and HHS.

Some example guidelines include:

  • Increase intake of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages.
  • Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils.
  • Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains.
  • Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars.

On the surface that might sound simple but an analysis out of the UK says that trying to put such guidelines into practice is anything but. In fact, it appears these guidelines are causing people to adopt one of two basic diets, and neither are particularly healthy.

Published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, researchers investigated the findings of 53 previous studies and found a “strong and consistent” inverse relationship in the percentage of energy that comes from fats and sugars.

This means that individuals either follow a high-fat-low-sugar dietary pattern, or a high-sugar-low-fat dietary pattern. And as a nutritionist myself I certainly find this to be the case with my clients.

The Sugar-Fat Seesaw
In the nutrition world this phenomenon is known as the sugar-fat seesaw.

Lead author of the study Dr Michele Sadler said, “A key reason that we see this sugar-fat seesaw is likely to be because sources of sugars such as fruit, breakfast cereals and juices are low in fat, while sources of fat such as oils and meat products are low in sugar.”

This is definitely true of low-fat product varieties too, which tend to have a much greater sugar content to compensate for the taste and mouth-feel changes.

For example, next time you’re at the grocery store compare the sugar content of a low-fat fruit yogurt to that of a full-fat yogurt.

In fact, you can even look at popular diets today — such as the Paleolithic Diet which basically restricts any carbohydrates (sugars) except for potato — to see that this is certainly the case.

Looking at the guidelines mentioned above you can see there is a yawning gap between what the government recommends you to do and what individuals will actually do.

Further, recommendations on what percentage of your total caloric intake should come from carbohydrate (sugars), fat, and protein are confusing and contradictory.

Implementing a low-sugar, low-fat diet that ticks all the boxes is difficult. Too difficult. That’s just the reality of the world we live in and the foods available to us.

Dr Sadler added: “This study highlights the need to focus dietary messages on eating a healthy balanced diet and not categorizing individual nutrients as good or bad, which could result in unbalanced dietary habits.”

It’s also worth mentioning this study received a grant by Sugar Nutrition UK, but the authors clarified that no Sugar Nutrition personnel had any part in the paper. So whether there’s any political hidden agendas going on behind the scenes or not remains to be seen.

What Dietary Guidelines Should I Follow Then?
I can tell you now there’s no one “diet” to follow that’ll suit everyone’s needs. What works for you might not work for someone else, and vice versa.

We’re all so different–we have different tastes, different allergies, different metabolisms, and we respond to foods differently too.

It is enough to just ensure the vast majority of your diet is made up of real, natural foods. Not food-like products that are made in a factory.

“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” said Michael Pollan.

This, I think, should be dietary guideline number one. Do you follow it?

Image credit: Thinkstock.


Jim Ven
Jim Vabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Lady Az
Lady Az4 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Jesus is God :D

tin leng lim
tin leng lim4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Aine Conghaile
Anne Connolly4 years ago

Moderation in all things...

Tim C.
Tim C4 years ago


Helen Krummenacker

For many people in the US, great-grandmother would make a huge stack of white flour flapjacks covered with syrup, or biscuits and gravy to go with fatty ham, bacon, or sausage and a big serving of eggs for breakfast, the most important meal of the day.
Whole grains were NOT in favor, white rice instead of brown as a change from white flour bread. I'm middle aged, and my great grandmother would have been cooking during some of the worst times possible for healthy eating. But they did consume a lot of calories if they could.

Why? Because almost everyone did loads of physical work. Even if you were a desk worker, you commuted on foot or by bicycle most of the time, climbed stairs if you lived in a city, etc, etc.
We could eat more of what we like if we kept active like people should.

Sandy Castro
Sandy Castro4 years ago

So true and thank you.

Winn Adams
Winn A4 years ago


Phillipa W.
Phillipa W4 years ago

they are deliberately written like that TO confuse people and to ensure people aren't scared off buying junk food too much. To be very blunt, they could just say what they're trying to say in a direct way, rather than a round-about way, but then the dietary guidelines would seem to conflict with other advise such as "eat and drink dairy for calcium", or "meat's fine to eat". To say eat more fruits and vegetables, keep your grains wholegrain rather than refined and eradicate or limit saturated fats including organic, free-range eggs, dairy and meat and limit or eradicate refined sugar from your diet is just too simple and doesn't sufficiently confuse people enough.

Lisa Zilli
Lisa Zilli4 years ago