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Food Myth – Fruit has too much sugar

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

So today’s myth is one I hear all the time when counseling patients and clients, particularly those with diabetes.

These poor people have spent months or years having everyone dictate their diet to them.

I’ve heard some crazy accounts, but telling people to avoid fruit (and carrots, for some reason) is ridiculous. 

Furthermore, I’ve seen this advice extend outside of diabetes to everyone. So let’s break this down. 

It’s enough to make me facepalm while rolling my eyes.

Many people believe they have to stop eating fruit because it has too much sugar. I explain why this is not necessary, nor is it recommended.
Why you should be eating fruit, even if you have diabetes.

Health benefits of fruit

First of all, fruit is full of fiber.  We know that people that eat enough fiber in a day (25-30 g for women, 30-38 g for men) have lower rates of heart disease and colon cancer and have an easier time managing their happy weight.

 

Additionally, fiber feeds the good bacteria in your gut. By now, everyone’s heard of probiotics, right? Maybe you’re even taking a supplement.

 

While probiotic supplements can be helpful in some situations, their effect is typically temporary. Your diet (particularly getting enough fiber) is the main factor regarding the makeup of your gut microbiome. 

In other words, fiber feeds the good bugs, and sugar and saturated fat feed the bad bugs.

 

Secondly, fruits are full of phytochemicals.  We’ve talked about them before (see link), so we won’t spend a lot of time on them.

But basically, phytochemicals are little compounds in plants that do various things for the plant, but then do good things for us when we eat them.  

 

Finally, fruit contains many vitamins and minerals that may be otherwise lacking, particularly vitamins A & C, folate, and potassium.

pomegranate fruit
Photo by Arjun Kapoor on Unsplash

So why do people knock on fruit?

Generally, this is due to a misunderstanding of recommendations regarding sugar.

See, we have a communication problem. When a dietitian or public health entity recommends decreasing your sugar consumption, we mean added sugars.

 

Such things as soda, cakes, cookies, candy bars, and donuts.  High-fructose corn syrup, in particular, can be hard on the body because fructose is processed differently than other sugars.

What some people get from this is “eliminate all sugar!”

 

However, the sugar content, even the fructose content of whole fruits, is much lower than desserts and sweets with added sugar. And remember all that excellent fiber? 

 

It slows the glucose spike and the fructose delivery to the liver. This means that the effect on the body from eating an apple is much different than snarfing down a cola and potato chips at 3 pm.

Berries on a wood surface.
Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

Carbohydrate count of various fruits

All of the following nutrient contents are based on 100g of fruit. I added a reference for you to get an idea of how much food we’re talking here.

FruitCaloriesTotal Carbs (g)Fiber (g)Sugar (g)Water (g)
Banana (~6″)89232.61275
Apple (~1 cup, sliced)52142.41086
Blueberries (~3/4 cup)57142.41084
Orange (1 small)47122.4987
Watermelon (~3/4 cup)3080.4691
Source: USDA Food and Nutrient Database

For under 100 calories, you can get full, get lots of vitamins and minerals, and not have a sugar crash later. Add some protein for staying power

Carbohydrate content of various desserts, sodas, candy bars, etc

Again, these are in 100g portions, to compare gram for gram with the fruit. Approximate serving sizes are provided.

FoodCaloriesTotal Carbs (g)Fiber (g)Sugar (g)Water (g)
Snickers (1 king-sized bar)491622506
Kroger Chocolate Cake (serving size not provided)43958244 not provided
Regular Cola (~3 oz)421001089
Chocolate Ice Cream (~3/4 cup)2512011758
Source: USDA Food and Nutrient Database

Look at the calorie counts for the same 100g of food. Pay attention to what 100 grams of the various foods look like.

Three ounces of cola… A can is usually 12 ounces!

 

So for 300-400 calories, you get sugar, saturated fat, a sugar crash, and not much else.

orange fruit on white surface
Photo by Adam Śmigielski on Unsplash

So why is fruit okay?

Fruit has less sugar than desserts and candy bars.

Fruit has fiber, which slows the rise in blood sugar.

Fruit has water, which helps fill up the tummy and further slows down the GI transit of your snack.

 

Many fruits have a high “chewing resistance.” Think about chewing an apple versus chewing a brownie. 

The simple act of chewing starts to signal the brain to start releasing your fullness hormones. So the more you chew, the greater the satiety from your snack or meal.

A note on fruit juice, smoothies, and dried fruit

So many people wonder if their morning O.J. counts towards their fruit servings for the day. And the answer really depends on who you ask. I tend to lean towards no, and here’s why.

 

When you juice a fruit or vegetable, you are completely removing all of the fiber. What you have left is some flavor, a few vitamins and minerals, and ALL of the sugar. In one straight shot. No fiber to slow it down.

When you buy commercial juices, extra sugar is usually added in, if there is any real juice in them at all.

 

Smoothies are better. You put the whole fruit in, and the whole fruit comes back out. Additionally, you can add some protein, maybe some fat (peanut butter, anyone?) to keep you fuller, for longer too.

 

However, you’ll still miss out on some satiety from this meal or snack, because you aren’t chewing. If you keep your smoothie in check, and it keeps you feeling full and satisfied, go for it.

 

But if you are adding sugar and you’re hungry again really soon after eating it, try something else.

Dried fruit is great! You get to chew it, you keep the fiber, so what could be the downside?

 

Well, the water is removed—the other part of that tummy-filling benefit of fruit.  Imagine what 10 grapes look like, compared to 10 raisins. Which do you think would take up more room in your stomach?

Photo by Pineapple Supply Co. on Unsplash

How much fruit should you eat in a day?

Again, the answer varies between who you ask.  Generally, between 2 and 4 servings a day.  You could even go higher.

In fact, this is often a tactic I use when my clients make a goal of eating more vegetables and then state they don’t like vegetables. 

 

I have them start by increasing their fruit intake, then transition into eating more vegetables.

An individual with diabetes needs to continue monitoring their carbohydrate intake, but usually, increasing fruit will have a negligible effect on their blood glucose.

Either way, they are getting used to eating more whole foods in their diet.

So what is a serving?

A serving of raw fruit comes to about 1 cup of the edible portion. That is the fruit minus the inedible core.

For larger fruit, such as an apple, look for something roughly the size of a tennis ball.

 

Another way to look at all of this is to consider your overall daily intake.

At least half of what you eat should be a fruit or vegetable. More vegetables than fruit. 

What if you have diabetes?

Check your blood sugar after you eat a fruit snack. Just like some people see a spike in their blood glucose after eating rice but not from bread, some people will see different results from bread. 

The only to know how you respond is to check your glucose.

Consider pairing your fruit with a protein such as a few cubes of cheese or an ounce of nuts.

Ultimately, these are questions to ask a dietitian that is familiar with you and your specific trends and lifestyle, not an article you found on some website.

Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash

There is no perfect fruit

Variety is key to a healthy diet. You’ve probably heard of “superfoods.”  (there’s a whole other needed conversation). Usually, blueberries are on that list.

However, if the only fruit you ate were blueberries, you’d be missing out on the good things in melons, bananas, grapes, and citrus. 

The same goes for any healthy food, really. Make sure that you get a variety of fruits and vegetables to get the best possible nutrition.

Photo by Sarah Gualtieri on Unsplash

How to get your fruit in

Add to your blueberries to your oatmeal or Greek yogurt for breakfast.

When that 3 pm slump hits, choose an oz of almonds and an orange instead of chips from the vending machine or a stale donut.

 

If you have the grill going, throw on halved peaches or some pineapple rings.

Dip a sliced apple in peanut butter.

 

Watermelon makes a fantastic “appetizer” when paired with feta cheese and fresh basil. Consider drizzling with a balsamic vinegar reduction. Gosh, I might have to do this tomorrow. I’m almost drooling thinking about it! And I have all the ingredients on hand…

More Snack Ideas

Conclusion

A recent study concluded that we may actually be UNDERestimating the health benefits of fruits and vegetables!

I hope I’ve impressed upon you that fruit (and carrots) are not something to be feared. In all actuality, most of us probably need to be eating MORE fruit. Unless you’re Roman, that dude gets plenty.

 

Now the caveat is: if you eat so much fruit that you aren’t getting enough vegetables and protein in, go ahead and back off that stuff!

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