After all, fruit is rich in sugar, of which, as a whole, Americans eat way too much. The recommended daily allowance of carbohydrates is 130 grams; the average adult eats three times that per day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts per capita intake of added sugar at 131 pounds per year, which greatly contributes to weight gain and obesity as well as metabolic conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
[See: U.S. News’ 38 Best Diets Overall.]
Natural vs. Added Sugars
Whether you are biting into an apple, downing a soda or munching on a piece of candy, the sugar you are consuming is made of two molecules: glucose and fructose. Table sugar is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, while fruits as well as high-fructose corn syrup both contain anywhere from 40 to 55 percent fructose.
But it’s how these sugar molecules are packaged that ultimately determines the sugar’s effect on your health, explains registered dietitian Jim White, spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia.
When packaged in whole foods such as fruit, naturally occurring sugars come with a healthy helping of fiber, slowing the body’s breakdown of these sugars, tempering their effect on blood sugar and insulin levels and reducing your body’s propensity to store energy from sugar as fat, he explains.
“Fruit contains natural sugars, but fruit is so much more than just sugar. Fruit is relatively low-calorie and contains essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients that we don’t get from other foods but need for optimum health,” says St. Louis-based registered dietitian Alexandra Caspero. Hence why, in one study of 65,226 adults, people who ate seven or more servings of fruit and veggies per day had a 42 percent lower risk of dying during the study’s follow-up compared to those who ate less than one full serving per day.
Plus, all fiber, antioxidants and other nutrients aside, fruit contains significantly less sugar than packaged foods such as soda, candy and snack items. For instance, a 182-gram apple contains 19 grams of sugar while a 58-gram candy bar contains 35 grams of the sweet stuff.
“You can definitely overeat added sugars, but it’s very difficult to overeat sugar if you’re only getting it from whole fruit,” White says.
For instance, research from Emory University shows that the average American eats 55 grams of fructose per day, accounting for more than 10 percent of total caloric intake. Sugar-sweetened beverages were responsible for 30 percent of fructose intake. Fruit and fruit juice contributed 19 percent.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
“When I’m analyzing diets for weight loss, too much fruit is rarely the culprit,” Caspero says. After all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t get the recommended three servings of fruit per day. (A serving equals one whole piece or a half cup of chopped fruit.)
And research suggests that eating even more than that might not be a bad thing.
According to one Metabolism study, when participants ate 20 servings of fruit per day for two weeks, they experienced no adverse affects in their weight, blood pressure or triglyceride levels. They did, however, reduce their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels by 38 points. Meanwhile, a 2013 Nutrition Journal study found that decreasing fruit intake had no benefit on the blood sugar levels, weights or waist circumferences of people with Type 2 diabetes.
“I don’t recommend people eat as much fruit as they want, as some weight-loss programs recommend,” White says. (For example, fruits are zero points in Weight Watchers, meaning dieters can eat all they want.) “But it’s incredibly rare for anyone to actually need to decrease their fruit intake. Most need to work on eating more, not less.”
The Scoop on Fruit Juice
That said, is sipping fruit juice the same as eating whole fruit? Not exactly. In fact, many people need to reduce their intake of fruit juice, White says. After all, when juiced, the naturally occurring sugars in fruit are separated from the fruit’s beneficial fiber. Without the fiber, the sugar in your glass of OJ is processed much like the sugar in your soda.
Case in point: Research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that while people who eat more whole fruits (especially blueberries, grapes and apples) enjoy a significantly lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, greater intake of fruit juice (even 100-percent fruit juice) was associated with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Your move: Fill up on whole fruits — and skip the juices — for better health.
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