Excess sugar in the diet is targeted as one of the main contributors to obesity, and obesity-related diseases. But what exactly qualifies as "excess", and do naturally occurring sugars from fruits count? Does the sugar affect our body in the same way as the sugar in a candy bar?
Sugar is the simplest form of a carbohydrate. Carbohydrate sources include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as candy, baked goods, and other sweets. Although this is a wide range of foods from all across the "healthy to unhealthy spectrum", the common denominator among all carbohydrates is that they are processed by our bodies quicker than other nutrients. Some carbohydrates digest quicker than others, and that includes sugar, because our bodies can use it immediately for energy without having to break it down first. In terms of digestion alone, all sugars are processed the same, whether it be table sugar or sugar from fruit.
Now, this does NOT mean that if you are going to have fruit, you may as well have a candy bar in its place. There is significant nutritional value in fruit that comes along for the ride with the natural sugars. Here is why fruit is most likely NOT the culprit in your diet and why you should think again before cutting it out:
1. Fruit is full of water and fiber
Although high in sugar, fruits contain high amounts of water and fiber. This means that the sugar is only a fraction of the whole picture. Water and fiber fill you up quickly, so it would be difficult to over-consume sugar via fruit.
2. Fruit is full of vitamins and antioxidants
To cut all fruit out of our diet would be cutting a wide variety of beneficial antioxidants out along with it. Antioxidants are substances that may protect your cells against the effects of free radicals; free radicals may play a role in heart disease, cancer and other diseases (1). Different varieties of fruits contain different antioxidants that our bodies can really benefit from. Everyone has heard the advice "eat a diet with a lot of variety". To cut out fruit would be taking away a large portion of that variety! A greater diversity of antioxidants is going to be of more benefit than a high quantity of the same antioxidants.
3. Fruit's sugar is a natural energy-booster
Because sugar can be digested so quickly by our bodies, it is a quick source of energy. Therefore, its best to eat fruit early in the day or right before a workout, so the sugar can be put to good use and boost your energy levels when you need that energy.
The take-home message: fruit has far too many health benefits to cut out of your diet because of sugar. However, just like anything else, fruit is best consumed in moderation. Because fruit does yield sugar, and about 3-4x more carbs than vegetables, appropriate consumption is based on energy needs. The best time to eat fruit would be in the beginning and middle of the day, or before a workout, when we need that quick energy boost from the sugar. To prevent the blood sugar spike and crash, combining fruit with a protein or healthy fat will slow the digestion of the sugar, stabilizing energy levels (i.e. banana with peanut butter). How much fruit a day? Generally, a good rule of thumb is about 2 servings of fruit per day, a serving being around the size of a tennis ball. Alternate the types of fruit you eat from day to day to maximize health benefits.