The Sugar-Fat Seesaw

What's a seesaw effect?

There is an inverse relationship between the percentage of calories someone consumes from fat and those consumed from sugars. In other words, people with diets that are low in fat consume more sugar. The reverse is also true those with diets high in fat are likely to have low sugar intakes.

Counting Calories

This is known as a seesaw effect, it is a phenomenon confirmed by historical consumption data and observed by researchers. It gets to the heart of most science-based dietary guidance, which is achieving a balanced diet.

Counting calories this seesaw effect highlights the importance of focusing nutrition messages on a healthful and varied diet. Taking the whole diet approach, versus targeting a specific macronutrient such as fat, protein or carbohydrate is a way to help reduce obesity in the United States and worldwide. Any undue focus on a single dietary component is ineffective and misses the larger picture of how people actually eat.

The need for a broader view

Over the past 50 years efforts have targeted individual nutrients whether it sugar or fat or something else instead of reducing caloric intake. The opposite has occurred and caloric intake has increased dramatically and more people are more confused than ever.

Double Cheeseburger

The current focus on reducing added sugars just increases the fat consumption. Despite lessening health concerns about fat it remains a major and increasing source of calories but also in parallel calories from added sugars continue to decline.

Data from the United States Department of Agriculture indicates there has been a steady decline in the per capita consumption of sugars in the past two decades but fat and total calories have continued to increase. To clarify, Americans are consuming more than 450 additional calories each day than they were 40 years ago. These calories coming from mostly refined grains, added fats and oils. That's an equivalent of adding a double cheeseburger to your total calories every day. Also adding sugars contribute only 8% 40 cal to the daily increase in consumption.

Stabilizing the seesaw

Nutrient intake

If we focus on health messages that to strongly reduce sugar consumption this may mislead the public on their need to also reduce their fat and calories overall.

In 2015 the review of the evidence suggested that the inverse relationship is explained by food compositional effects. High-fat foods tend to be low in sugar and vice versa. Keeping this in mind to meet dietary recommendations for the percentage of energy intake that should come from both fat and sugars can prove challenging. In fact, most popular diet strategies are prone to seesawing as they typically focus on either a reduction of fat or reduction of carbohydrates are sugars.

Sugar-Fat Seesaw Chart

Body Mass Index or BMI

Research has observed how the seesaw impacts BMI and found those with higher BMIs tend to be on the high-fat, low sugar end of the seesaw.

A study done in 2016 examine the diets of more than 100,000 people in the United Kingdom who are part of an ongoing health study. They found that obesity was strongly associated with total energy intake than any individual macronutrient such as fat, carbohydrate or protein, with that being the biggest contributor to caloric intake and having the strongest association with obesity. There was a positive, but weak correlation between obesity and absolute energy derived from sugar. After controlling calories, fat remained positively associated with obesity while sugar was negatively associated.

BMI Chart

An analysis of the data from the USDA found that those who consumed less than 10% of energy from added sugars had higher BMIs than those who energy intake came from sugars fell between 10 and 35%. Those who consume the lowest percentage of calories from sugars actually had the highest BMIs.

The bottom line

All macronutrients fit within a healthy lifestyle should recognize that both sugar and fat are essential components of food data shown that the seesaw effect of restricting individual nutrients only leads to caloric overcompensation in another whether sugar or fat or vice versa. If you're striving for weight control, concentrate on a balanced approach to eliminate the sugar fat seesaw up and down.


If you are bothered with the question whether eating sugar after a workout is good for your health you should first realize that yes-no answer to this question just doesn’t exist.

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Glycemic Index Glycemic Load

To unlock energy from food and meet your basic energy needs, the body must convert starches and sugars and food into glucose. The glycemic index or G.I. is a measure of how quickly the starches and sugars in a food or beverage are broken down into glucose and a release of the bloodstream after food or beverages consumed.

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