Should You Avoid Fruit Because of Its Sugar Content?
The Short Answer:
Absolutely not. Fresh fruit (not dried fruit or canned stuff drowning in syrup) should be a focal point of almost any diet. While it’s generally more caloric than veggies, the amount of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients within mean those calories are going to good use. As for the sugar issue, the fiber content slows absorption. That fiber, along with the water content, also helps to stem overeating (provided you’re not a binge eater—and if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter what you overeat).
Heck, even the American Diabetes Association recommends, “Having a piece of fresh fruit or fruit salad for dessert is a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth and get the extra nutrition you’re looking for.”
In short, I have never met an overweight person or a person with weight-related issues whose biggest indulgence was a banana.
The Long Answer:
Say what you will about the sugar in fruit; it’s impossible to deny that fact that the stuff is dense in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. The benefits of the first two we all know. Citrus and kiwis contain high levels of vitamin C. Bananas are full of electrolytes, including magnesium. If you have a favorite fruit, you probably know the multitude of goodies it contains.
Equally important are phytonutrients, a still relatively-undiscovered country in the world of nutritional science. Studies on their benefits surface almost daily—and yet they’re still rather mysterious. One thing we know, though, is that they tend to be more effective when they are allowed to function synergistically with the other compounds in fruits and veggies. As Cornell University Professor of Food Science Rui Hai Lui points out in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Food provides not only essential nutrients needed for life but also other bioactive compounds for health promotion and disease prevention… Consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as grains, has been strongly associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, and age-related functional decline.”
But About That Sugar Thing…
There’s a lot of hype about the evils of sugar—and because fruit has sugar in it, people mistakenly make the connection that it’s also part of the problem. But you see, sugar isn’t all bad—it just becomes a problem when manipulated to suit the human sweet tooth. The thing you really need to watch for is added sugar. By this, I mean sugar that’s been isolated and added to foods (or food-like products), upping their normal sugar content. So the sugar added to cookies, cereals, salad dressings, ketchup, ice cream, soda, your coffee or tea, etc. is the stuff you need to watch out for.
As is the sugar you add. And we’re not just talking refined table sugar. Organic sugar, raw sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, agave syrup, fructose—they are all problematic. Some may have marginal health benefits over others, but when it comes to regulating your blood sugar, they’re all bad news when you consume too much of them.
How Your Body Processes Carbs
Your body favors carbohydrates as a fuel source. When you eat them, enzymes in your digestive system break them down into their simplest possible form: sugar. Complex carbs, sometimes called starches, have complicated molecules that can take some time to break down. Simple carbs, or sugars, are easy to break down, if they need breaking down at all. Either way, the carbs you eat all become sugars called glucose and fructose, at which point they enter your bloodstream. At this point, your pancreas releases the hormone insulin, which does a few things with this blood sugar. If there’s a moderate amount, insulin delivers sugar to the liver and muscles for use as fuel. If there’s an excessive amount, insulin converts the sugar to adipose tissue (body fat) to be broken down for energy at a future time.
If this system is abused on a regular basis, which is to say your bloodstream is perpetually inundated with huge quantities of glucose (also known as a blood sugar spike), insulin may become hampered in its ability to deliver sugar. This is called insulin resistance. At first, your body solves this problem by making more insulin, but eventually, the system can break down, leading to diabetes type 2, where the excess sugar in your blood can cause all kinds of issues, including cardiovascular problems, liver disease, and kidney disease.
The key to avoiding blood sugar spikes is tempering your carb intake with other foods that slow absorption. Fat and protein help to some degree, but the best way to slow absorption is with fiber, which are carbs so complex that your body can’t digest them, so they slow the digestion of the carbs around them, causing the sugar to enter your blood at a slow drip. This is one reason why high-fiber foods are considered a healthier option. They help you avoid blood sugar spikes.
Fruit, in general, tends to be fiber-rich, making the sugar content irrelevant. For example, an apple has 25 grams of carbohydrates, 19 grams of which are sugar. That might sound unhealthy, but consider that it also has 4.4 grams of fiber. That’ll slow that sugar down, no problem.
And keep in mind that even complex carbs can cause sugar spikes when not regulated by fiber. For example, a large slice of white bread has 15 grams of carbs, only one of which is sugar. But it also has a paltry .7 grams of fiber! So despite being technically lower in sugar than an apple, white bread has a much higher impact on blood sugar levels. In fact, if you consult the Glycemic Index, a system for measuring the impact of foods on your blood sugar, white bread has a value of 70 while an apple has a value of 38.
But Isn’t the Fructose in Fruit Bad for You?
The primary sugar in fruit is fructose, which is unusual because it requires extra processing by the liver. Even more than other sugars, it has received bad press due largely to claims made by Dr. Robert Lustig. In his YouTube video, Sugar: The Bitter Truth—which had over 5 million hits at the time of this writing—Lustig claims fructose is an especially toxic sugar and more prone to convert to fat. There are also concerns that excess fructose can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
But these points are moot in the Great Fruit Debate because it’s almost impossible to consume enough fructose to cause this kind of damage via fruit. Even scholarly articles attacking fructose, such as “Dietary sugars: a fat difference” in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, concede, “It is also clear that fresh fruit remains a highly recommended dietary component, as one would have to eat vast quantities of fruits every day in order to ingest metabolically adverse amounts of dietary fructose.”
Lustig concurs, extolling the virtues of fresh produce—for many of the reasons mentioned above. “As far as I’m concerned, fiber is the reason to eat fruit,” he told The New York Times, explaining that fiber promotes satiety, slows the release of sugar, and benefits our gut bacteria.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Of course, overeating fruit is possible. Every now and then, I stumble across someone who will eat six bananas or an entire watermelon in a sitting, claiming that this is okay because “fruit is good for me!” But you can’t blame fruit for this kind of common sense lapse. There are all kinds of incredibly healthful foods that can be overeaten, from seeds and nuts to salmon and avocados.
Moderation is the key with any food, except maybe leafy greens—and last I checked, not many rabbits read this blog, so odds are you don’t have a physiology that can thrive on kale and spinach alone. For most people, 2–3 servings of fruit per day should do the trick. If you’re highly active, that number might double.
So consider your burden lifted, fruit lovers. Rest easy knowing your next visit to the farmers market will be guilt-free.