Sugar is bad.
Eating too much of it has been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, heart disease and even cancer. Americans have long known that eating too much sugar can be harmful, but recent studies have opened their eyes to just how bad it can be. When you couple that with the fact that the average American eats 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day (nearly triple the recommended limit), it’s easy to see why health conscious folks are trying hard to eliminate sugar from their diet.
One popular food group that’s high in sugar? Fruit. But in your rush to cut down on sweet stuff, you should think twice before you say sayonara to fruit. As it turns out, the body treats the sugar in whole fruit totally differently from how it handles the sugar in highly processed foods. Here’s why you shouldn’t be scared of the sugar in fruit.
Your Body on Sugar
To understand how sugar affects the body, let’s start with glucose and fructose. They are monosaccharides, which means they’re the simplest, most basic units of carbohydrates. Glucose is essential to life. It’s the body’s preferred source of energy. Even if we don’t eat glucose, our bodies produce it from proteins and fats. Fructose, on the other hand, cannot be produced by the body. When we eat fructose, most of it gets metabolized by the liver. Fructose is also a type of sugar that naturally occurs in most fruits and vegetables. However, food manufacturers often extract fructose and use it to sweeten processed foods.
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Insulin is a hormone that is key to metabolism and energy. When we consume fructose or glucose, our bodies naturally release insulin to help turn it into energy. However, eating too much fructose or glucose can lead to insulin resistance, a condition in which the body produces too much insulin. This increases the amount of fat the body stores inside its fat cells, leading to obesity and weight gain. Also, eating too much fructose can cause resistance to the leptin hormone. Leptin helps the body know how much fat is inside it, so leptin resistance leads to increased hunger (the body thinks it needs more fat) and decreased fat burning.
These factors are reasons why consuming too much sugar can lead to obesity and a host of other health issues.
Fruit is Your Friend
Fruit contains fructose. We just outlined a number of reasons why consuming excess fructose can be harmful for your body. And the amount of sugar in fruit can look a bit scary. Just consider these nutrition facts:
- 1 medium apple contains 19 grams of sugar
- 1 medium banana contains 14 grams of sugar
- 1 serving of watermelon contains 17 grams of sugar
- 1 medium pear contains 17 grams of sugar
- 1 cup of pineapple contains 16 grams of sugar
When you consider that a serving of Oreos (3 cookies) contains 14 grams of sugar, it can be easy to get spooked by fruit’s sugar content. Couple that with the fact that too much fructose can wreak havoc on the body, and you can understand why many people believe the sugar in fruit can be harmful.
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However, the body processes the sugar in fruit differently than it does, say, the sugar in Oreos. That is to say, all sugar is not created equal. When you consume fruit, you’re not just consuming sugar; you’re getting a bevy of healthful nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and antioxidants.
Fiber, particularly soluble fiber, is excellent at slowing down the body’s absorption of sugars. The fiber found in many raw foods, such as apples, is especially effective at this. The sugar in fruit is stored in cells where fiber also resides, which is a unique trait. That built-in fiber means it takes more time for the digestive tract to break down the sugar.
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“Fiber slows down digestion, resulting in the sugar being absorbed more slowly,” says Brian St. Pierre, sports dietitian and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. This delayed digestion has numerous benefits. It gives the liver more time to metabolize the sugar, which keeps blood sugar relatively stable. This helps to avoid the rapid rise—and sudden crash—associated with a sugar high.
“You don’t get that quick rise and fall of blood sugar levels,” St. Pierre says. Avoiding those surges in blood sugar reduces the amount of insulin your body must produce, thereby putting you at less risk of insulin resistance, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
The prolonged digestion period also means fruit keeps you feeling full longer than highly processed foods, which are digested quickly and “designed to overwhelm your normal satiation signals, so they can and often do lead to overeating,” St. Pierre says.
Besides fiber, fruits also have vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and possibly protein. That cocktail of nutrients is what makes whole fruit such a healthy choice. We’ve taken deep dives into the benefits of regularly eating fruit such as apples, bananas, oranges and strawberries, and the research is decisive. Regularly eating fruit has been connected to:
And much more. However, there are certain forms of fruit you should be wary of if you’re looking to cut down on sugar.
Stick to Whole Fruits
Up to this point, we’ve been talking only about whole fruits. Whole fruit is essentially fruit that hasn’t been exposed to extensive processing—a whole banana, an actual apple, a real pineapple, etc. It’s what you buy in the produce section of the grocery store.
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However, fruit in other forms can be a bit trickier. Canned fruit is one example. While some canned fruits are healthy choices, many contain a heavy amount of sugar-laden syrup. Additional processing (such as removing the skin of certain fruits) can drag their nutrition down even further. Dried fruits contain a ton of healthy nutrients, but they also pack a lot of sugar in a small package. Unlike whole fruit, it’s easy to down hundreds of calories worth of dried fruit in a single sitting. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t eat any canned or dried fruit—just be sure to pay attention to the ingredients and adjust your serving sizes accordingly.
Also, fruit juice shouldn’t be treated the same as whole, fresh fruit. A 12-ounce serving of apple juice, a lunch box staple, contains 180 calories, 43.5 grams of carbohydrates and 42 grams of sugar—nearly as much sugar as you’d get from five Fudgsicles. A 12-ounce serving of fruit punch (marketed as containing “100% natural flavors”) packs 135 calories, 37.5 grams of carbohydrates and 37.5 grams of sugar. Add the fact that most of the fiber and other useful nutrients are destroyed or altered during processing, and you see that fruit juice can easily do more harm than good in your diet.
Whole, fresh fruit is a fantastic food. While many types of whole fruit contain a substantial amount of sugar, the body simply doesn’t treat it the same way it handles sugar from highly processed foods. “If we take a nutrient-centric approach, just looking at sugar grams on the label, none of this is evident,” Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, told the New York Times.
Looking to cut down on the sugar in your diet can be a great step toward a healthier diet. However, fruit doesn’t deserve to be demonized just because it contains sugar. If you’re looking to cut down on your sugar consumption, start with highly processed foods (cookies, candy, soda, etc.), which are filled with added sugar. If you’re looking to get the most out of fruit, be sure to “eat the rainbow”—i.e., consume a wide variety of fruit of many colors to ensure you’re getting its full benefits.