Is sugar in fruit healthy?
We are often told to ‘eat more fruit and vegetables’ to improve our health. We are also told to cut down on sugar, which causes weight gain. Fruits are naturally sweet (which makes them taste great) because they contain relatively high amounts of sugar. This makes the advice seems contradictory. Should we avoid eating fruit because it contains sugar? Or is the sugar in fruit different from that in processed foods? We asked two nutrition experts, ‘Is sugar in fruit healthy?’, here is what they said…
Is sugar in fruit healthy?
What is in a piece of fruit?
We are often told to eat more fruit and vegetables because of the nutrients they contain. Dr Tim Crowe, a nutrition expert from Thinking Nutrition, says “Fruit is a good source of fibre, contains many important nutrients and because of its water content, is less energy dense than many high-sugar containing convenience foods.” Fibre is important to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
However, fruit also contains sugar, this is what makes it taste sweet. Dr Cornelie Nienaber-Rousseau, a nutrition expert from North-West University in South Africa, says “A serving of fruit (one small to medium fruit such as a small banana, an apple, or orange or half a cup of canned or fresh fruit or fruit juice or quarter cup of dried fruit) contains about 15 g of carbohydrate mostly as sugars. These natural sugars found in fruit are mostly sucrose, fructose and glucose and makes them enjoyable as snacks or deserts.”
If fruit is sugary, is it still healthy?
Dr Crowe answers this question by referring to a systematic review, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, “involving 41 studies with a mixture of both randomised-controlled trials and observational studies where fruit consumption was tracked against body weight changes”. He explains the conclusion of the review: “increasing consumption of whole, fresh fruit did not increase body weight and likely even had a modest impact on weight loss – especially when you looked at the higher quality randomised-controlled trials that run for up to 6 months.” He goes on to say that “eating fruit also helped to reduce the total amount of food eaten either by displacing more energy dense foods or helping control appetite.”
What about fruit juices or tinned fruit?
Dr Crowe discussed the benefits of eating whole, fresh fruit, but many of us consume fruit in different forms such as in dried, tinned or juiced. Unfortunately, drinking fruit juice does not seem to be as healthy as eating whole fruit. Dr Nienaber-Rousseau says “drinking 100% fruit juice is associated with a small clinically insignificant amount of weight gain in children aged 1 to 6 years and is not associated with weight gain in children aged 7 to 18. More research on the contribution of juices to weight gain is needed, but it is recommended that fruit juice only provides half of the daily fruit servings.” The NHS recommends limiting your daily fruit juice intake to one small glass (150 ml), as juicing fruit releases the sugar but often filters out the healthiest part of the fruit such as the fibre.
Dr Nienaber-Rousseau concludes that “It is almost impossible to get too much sugar from fresh fruit, but this does not apply to fruit canned in syrup, fruit juice or dried fruit.”
How come we don’t gain weight when we eat more fruit?
Dr Crowe explained that eating more fresh, whole fruit does not cause weight gain (in fact it can cause some weight loss!), but how is this possible when we know that fruit contains lots of sugar?
Dr Nienaber-Rousseau explains, saying “Fresh whole fruit satisfy the appetite better than juices or dried fruit, because fresh whole fruits have a lot of fibre and water that slow down your digestion and make you feel full.”
She adds that “apples and oranges are some of the most filling foods per kilojoule – higher than some protein containing food such as steak or eggs. Although a medium apple contains 19 g of natural sugar including 11 g of fructose, you will feel less hungry after eating an apple than if you had the same amount of sugar from a tablespoon of honey or a half a can of fizzy drink - the packaging makes a profound nutritional difference!”
So how much fruit should we eat?
Dr Crowe concludes, saying “It is pretty clear that fruit in its whole form rightly counts as a healthy part of any diet and concerns about weight gain from it are very misguided.” He says that “There are lots of reasons to eat fewer foods high in added in sugar, but when it comes to healthy fruit and its naturally present sugar, there is no need to be cutting back. Whole, fresh fruit is unlikely to add excess kilojoules to the diet or cause weight gain, and if anything may help protect against it. That makes for a good reason to continue to enjoy fruit every day.”
Dr Nienaber-Rousseau makes a final cautionary point – “Note that only eating fruit – the so-called fruitarian diet is not considered to be healthy”
Don’t hold back on eating whole fresh fruits as part of your varied diet, they include lots of important nutrients and are great at making you feel satiated!
May the facts be with you!
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