We’ve all likely been told at some point in our lives to watch our sugar intake. Whether the cautionary advice came from our parents, dentist, or doctor, attention should be paid to the negative effects that come from added sugar in our diet.
It’s estimated that the average American consumes about 17 teaspoons of sugar a day–adding up to 60 pounds of sugar each year! As a whole, the U.S. population consumes more than 300% of the daily recommended amount of added sugar (1)! And while we can all agree that a bag of candy is full of sugar and not beneficial for your health, what about the natural sugar in fruit? Is the sugar in fruit bad for you too?
There is a big difference between natural and refined sugars when considering their health effects.
Artificial vs. natural fructose
Fructose is a natural sugar present in fruit and honey. In whole foods, fructose is not something to avoid. Most fruits are low-calorie foods packed with fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants and have been shown to help lower the risk of heart disease, strokes, obesity, and cancers (2). Due to their high fiber content, fruits increase your satiety and slow down the breakdown of fruit sugar in the body.
Most fruits also have a low-to-medium glycemic index–keeping you from experiencing sharp rises in your blood sugar that you would experience from cookies, sodas, or other processed foods. Interestingly, fruits also have a high chewing resistance, meaning the fructose will hit your liver slowly, aiding in easier digestion and less harm to your liver.
The sugar you should worry about cutting out of your diet is that from processed foods, not the natural sugar from fruit. In fact, most people do not get the recommended 2 cups of fruit each day, which is necessary for a healthy, balanced diet.
“Low fruit consumption is considered to be the fourth leading contributor to the global disease burden and it has even been estimated that 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide may be caused by a low fruit and vegetable intake (3).”
- Conor Kerley, PhD
In contrast, fructose can also be artificially or industrially produced and added to sweeten just about any type of food. Artificial or processed fructose, such as high fructose corn syrup, is industrially produced and is made by combining fructose, glucose, and corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is commonly added to processed foods. While you may suspect sugary drinks to contain HFCS, it is also found in ketchup, applesauce, canned fruit, juices, dressings, and cereals.
These sugars differ greatly from fruit sugar due to their processing, the high quantity added to foods, and the lack of any nutrients or fiber. Our bodies metabolize processed sugars faster, leading to insulin spikes and low satiety. Processed sugars are one the greatest contributors to weight gain, acne, inflammation, greater risk for high blood pressure and diabetes… the list goes on.
“While the simple sugars from whole fruit support human health, the refined, or extracted, sugars do not. The refining process removes the water, fiber, and virtually every other nutrient and element of the food. What’s left behind is sugar and only sugar—not the package it belongs in…Food manufacturers add these highly concentrated, palate-pleasing sugars to already stimulating and disease-causing high-fat foods (5).”
- Alona Pulde, MD and Matthew Lederman, MD (Forks Over Knives)
When considering the health benefits of sugar in your diet, consider the source: Does the sugar come from a natural source or is it found in a whole food? Or, is it processed and added to other foods?
Prediabetic or diabetic?
For those who are prediabetic or diabetic, watching blood sugar levels, weight, and blood pressure is vital, and the natural sugar in fruit is not to be ignored. As diabetic health is individualized, it is recommended to seek the advice and care from your health practitioner before making any changes to your diet.
Recent studies have shown the positive health benefits of fruit with those who are prediabetic and diabetic. One study concluded that increasing specific whole fruits–blueberries, grapes, and apples–is associated with lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes and increasing the consumption of fruit juice is associated with a higher risk (5).
"The best fruits for everyone to eat are the ones that create the least influence on blood sugar, often termed 'low glycemic load,' even if you don't have diabetes. These include fruits with rich, deep colors such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, dark cherries and kiwi. The rich color is a result of antioxidants-which we know help to neutralize free radicals-but there are also other benefits to antioxidants that we cannot explain (6)."
-Daphne Olivier, R.D., C.D.E., founder of My Food Coach
As a general rule, pairing fruits with a protein or fat will help slow digestion and the rise of blood sugar.
Simply put, fruit should not be avoided in your diet. The natural sugar in fruit differs greatly from the sugar added to processed foods. Fruit has a great source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, and can even help lower the risk of heart disease, inflammation, and diabetes, making it a necessary part of a healthy, balanced diet.