During a client sessions, my client dismissed the health benefits of fruit because, as she put it, “it’s full of sugar”. You won’t be surprised to hear this wasn’t the first time I’d heard this ‘sugar in fruit is a bad’ idea.
This thought that fruit is somehow a bad thing to eat came into full swing with the low carb diet craze a few years ago. But the myth persists. Not a week goes by that we don’t hear or read to avoid fruit because it’s “all sugar” or “loaded with carbs”. So, I want to elaborate on it and to set the record straight and come to the defense of some of the world’s healthiest foods – fresh, whole fruits.
Sugar Content in fruit – what are the facts?
I’ll tackle the “fruit is all sugar” statement first – because it’s just plain wrong. Fresh fruit offers so much more than the natural sugar it contains – including water, vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients (those naturally-occurring plant compounds that have wide ranging beneficial effects on the body). Where else can you get a package like that for about 75 calories per serving?
The idea that fruit is “loaded with carbs” or is “full of sugar” needs to be put into perspective, too. It’s true that when you eat fruit, the overwhelming majority of the calories you consume are supplied by carbohydrate – mostly in the form of fructose, which is the natural sugar in fruit.
But that’s the nature not just of fruit, but of all plant foods – they’re predominantly carbohydrate (and that means not just natural sugars, but healthy starches as well as structural elements, like cellulose, that provide fiber). When you eat vegetables, the majority of the calories you’re eating come from carbohydrate, too. But you don’t hear people complaining that vegetables are “loaded with carbs”.
Before dismissing foods as being loaded with sugar, or too high in carbs, consider not only the amount of sugar or carbs you’re eating, but the form of the carbohydrate, too. There’s a big difference between the nutritional value of the natural carbohydrates found in fruits and other plant foods – the sugars, starches and fibers – and what’s found (or, more accurately, what’s not found) in all the empty calories we eat from added sugars that find their way into everything from brownies to barbecue sauce.
Faced with a serving of fruit, how much sugar are we talking about, anyway? An average orange has only about 12 grams of natural sugar (about 3 teaspoons) and a cup of strawberries has only about 7 grams – that’s less than two teaspoons. And either way, you’re also getting 3 grams of fiber, about a full day’s worth of vitamin C, healthy antioxidants and some folic acid and potassium to boot – and it’ll only cost you about 50 or 60 calories. “All sugar”? I think not.
By contrast, a 20-ounce cola will set you back about 225 calories and, needless to say, won’t be supplying any antioxidants, vitamins, minerals or fiber. You’ll just be chugging down some carbonated water, maybe some artificial color and flavor, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 grams of added sugar – about 15 teaspoons or 1/3 of a cup.
Now that’s what I call “full of sugar”.
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.
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 but consider that it also has 4.4 grams of fiber. That’ll slow that sugar down, no problem.
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. For most people, 2–3 servings of fruit per day should do the trick. If you’re highly active, that number might double.
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