Many people these days are afraid to eat fruit, for fear of it making them fat. Ironically, the same group of folks will have often have little to no problem indulging in foods like pizza, ice cream, bread, pasta, and potatoes. While I can’t explain these beliefs and behaviors, I will try to quickly explain the differences between the different types of carbohydrates and why you should or shouldn’t be too concerned.
Refined sugar is absorbed quickly and elevates blood glucose, causing the pancreas to release insulin and rush off the excess to storage. While insulin does this, your blood sugar drops again, leaving you craving even more sugar. If your body’s two “gas tanks,” the muscles and liver, are already full and have no need of the glucose, the conversion to fat will begin. This refined sugar is in stuff like candy, soda, cereals, desserts, etc. It’s best to intentionally avoid his type of carbohydrate.
Starches are complex carbohydrates, or long chains of sugars, which will break down into glucose in the blood, albeit a little slower than simple refined sugars. Large amounts at once, however, will cause a high and prolonged spike in insulin levels, leaving you with low blood sugar and fatigue while your body rushes all the glucose off for fat production. It’s important to note that this category is NOT inherently “bad.” In fact, some of the healthiest foods contain starch – like oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, and sweet potatoes. We like to use the term “quality starch sources” to differentiate from “worthless starch sources.” Quality starch sources are filled with intestine-cleansing and cholesterol-reducing fiber, as well as other good nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Worthless starches like rolls, pasta, and chips contain little to no fiber or other vital nutrients. They also tend to spike insulin levels harder and faster than their more natural, healthy counterparts.
Natural fruit sugar, or fructose, operates a little differently than the dietary glucose in refined sugar and starches. It actually travels to the liver first, where it is converted to glucose and prefers replenishing energy stores moreso than creating triglycerides. Uptake of fructose is not dependent on insulin, so doesn’t immediately instigate it’s release or have the same negative effect on your hormones. Furthermore, when fruit is eaten in its natural form, it almost always comes with water and fiber, two wonderful friends of blood sugar balance, not to mention a myriad of other health benefits.
It’s important to note that high fructose corn syrup is not the same as naturally-occurring fructose. Perhaps this synthetically created substance that contains the word “fructose” is one of the reasons fruit has gotten a bad reputation. HFCS is usually about 50% glucose, depending on the application. It should probably be renamed “high fructose glucose syrup” to more accurately reflect its components. The post-prandial (after a meal) negative effects of simple glucose are already well known.
So fruit is not to be feared. In fact, studies have been done that show zero weight gain in subjects fed up to 12 servings of fruit per day vs control groups. (By the way, the fruit eaters in that study drastically lowered LDL cholesterol levels!) I’ve never met a person that started eating more fruit and gained weight. Scientifically, it’s possible, yes – because all excess calories can eventually be converted to fat by the body (except fiber). That includes protein. But … what we choose to eat ends up impacting our desire for more or less food, our energy to be more active or inactive, and the health and metabolism of our body. Perhaps that’s why the net result of fruit equals a better body and better weight. Do you like to order dessert after a big bowl of watermelon? It’s not likely. Maybe indulging in “nature’s treats” keeps us from binging on worse carbohydrates. Furthermore, research has revealed that fruits contain phytonutrients with the power to help us focus, reduce inflammation, improve circulation, reduce blood pressure, enhance libido, speed muscle recovery, and fight cancer. So whether it’s their positive impact on our diet or their positive impact on our health, science has shown that people who eat a lot of fruit tend to have lower BMI’s than those who don’t.
I believe the myth that “fruit makes you fat” stems from demonization of carbohydrates, and the idea that all starches and sugars are equal. It’s not true. Just because the body CAN make body fat out of a particular dietary component doesn’t mean that it wants to or will. Remember, energy balance is the key, and it looks like fruit ultimately helps you burn more and binge less. That’s a win-win. Turns out our plant-friendly teeth and 27-ft long intestines were designed like that for a reason afterall.