Lately, it feels like we’re in the throes of sugar-phobia. And, to be fair, it’s not without good reason. The popular media, trusted health organizations (like the American Heart Association, World Health Organization and National Academy of Medicine) and high-profile nutrition experts all have called for us to eat less added sugar.
After all, added sugar has been tied to the obesity epidemic and related chronic illnesses like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. As the general public leans away from soda, sweet breakfast cereals and store-bought cookies, it’s tempting to celebrate sugar’s status as a nutrition super-villain. But, as a dietitian, I can’t help but feel this new awareness comes with unintended consequences, namely in the upswing of people who ask me: “Is it OK to eat fruit? It’s so high in sugar.”
That a fear of fruit was born out of recommendations to eat less added sugar shows a lack of nuance in the way we think about nutrition.
NUTRITION WITH NUANCE
Instead of judging foods by all they have to offer, we tend to judge them narrowly based on one or two things and quickly categorize them as either “good” or “bad.” In other words, how many carbs, and how much fat and protein does a food contain, and in what proportion? If the stars align (booyah, only 5 grams of sugar!) then we think, “It must be ‘good’ for me, so I’m going to eat it.”
By that logic, an orange can be compared to cola. After all, gram for gram, your sweet citrus snack has about as many calories, carbohydrates and sugar as cola (see table below). This comparison is, of course, very silly — we all know oranges outweigh soda when it comes to nutritional quality. But we’re lured into this thought process because the framework we have for learning, thinking and speaking about food is nutrient-focused.
Cola (100 grams) Orange (100 grams)
Calories 38 47
Fat (g) 0 0
Sodium (mg) 4 0
Potassium (mg) 2 181
Carbohydrate (g) 10 12
Dietary Fiber (g) 0 2
Sugar (g) 9 9
Protein (g) 0 1
Vitamin A (%DV 0 4
Vitamin C (%DV) 0 88
My simple, nutrient-focused defense is this: You get more nutritional bang for your calorie buck with oranges. You get more fiber, potassium and vitamins A and C from oranges than from soda. The fiber in fresh oranges contributes to satiety, making it very difficult to down more than 2–3 at a time. It’s a different story with soda.
This explanation should be enough, but it’s not. Food is not a sum of its nutrients. For example, phytochemicals in fruit have been shown to reduce obesity by suppressing the growth of fat tissues and acting as antioxidants against inflammation. Some phytochemicals like carotenoids, also known as vitamin A, are counted among our core micronutrients. Others, like anthocyanin and polyphenols, are not considered micronutrients but do hold valuable health benefits anyway. It’s useful to have an educated understanding about which nutrients are healthful or harmful. But, when it’s time to decide whether or not you should eat something, ask whether the food as a whole is positively contributing to your health.
THE FRUITFUL VERDICT
When you consider fruit’s contribution to health, the answer is clear: Fruit fears go against the science that eating enough fruits and vegetables can lower your risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and so much more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conclude that replacing high-calorie, less-nutritious foods with fruit and vegetables is a good strategy for weight loss. If you haven’t been diagnosed with diabetes or have a fruit allergy, you don’t need to be cautious with your intake.
3 QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF WHEN CUTTING BACK ON SUGAR
Hopefully we’ve convinced you to stop fearing fruit! Still interested in cutting your added sugar intake? Ask yourself these three questions:
1. Is the sugar in this food mostly added sugar or natural sugar (e.g., from fruit, vegetables, dairy)?
2. Is the food that I am eating providing me with more than just empty calories?
3. Am I enjoying this food as part of a sensible and well-balanced diet?