Fruit, by definition, is the sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food. This has been a favorite point of gained knowledge for all my children around the fourth grade. They are fascinated that cucumbers and tomatoes are actually fruits, and not vegetables, and take great delight in correcting me every chance they get.
What the distinction of fruit versus vegetable doesn’t change is the health benefits of eating a diet rich in both. Fruit, however, does have the drawback of containing sugar (and for the purists out there – it’s true vegetables can also have sugar, but it is usually present in smaller amounts).
The question my patients often posed to me is whether the sugar in fruits is enough of a reason to avoid eating them. Let’s back up a little before we answer this.
Our bodies need fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Of these, carbohydrates are the only one we don’t need to get from external sources – our body can, if needed, make them from the other groups. Fascinating, isn’t it?
However, carbohydrates are the preferred energy source for the body, as they are the easiest for the body to use quickly. That is why we crave them.
All carbohydrates are broken down into sugars for our use. During this process, the carbohydrates elicit an insulin response from our body to help maintain a steady level of sugar in the blood. This is commonly referred to as an insulin spike. High levels of insulin help control the sugar in our blood levels by sending the sugar into our cells to work, storing the extra as fat.
So, ultimately, we get into trouble when we have too much sugar. But is fruit sugar the exception to this?
Well, the answer is yes and no. It is better for you, because when eaten in its whole form (the way it looked when it came off the tree), the sugar in fruit is accompanied by a lot of fiber and water. Due to this fact, it takes a lot longer to be absorbed into the blood and thus, does not raise sugar levels as quickly, avoiding pronounced elevation of blood sugar. This, in turn, does not cause much of an insulin spike. Fruit sugar is not necessarily better because once it is in the bloodstream, you will still get some insulin response, and depending on how much sugar you put into your bloodstream every day, that excess sugar will still be turned into fat – even if it came from a fruit.
That example referred to a whole piece of fruit. This is important to note because a lot of people put fruit juice, fruit smoothies, and dried fruit in the same category, and they are not the same – especially when it comes to insulin spike. As we learned earlier, it is the fiber and water content that helps slow this response. So, when we take our fruit and change it in one of these ways: completely separate it from its fiber (as juice), pre-“chew”/breakdown the fiber (smoothie) or remove all of its water (dried fruit), the sugar is pushed into our blood much quicker, causing a bigger insulin spike.
So, what I tell my patients is… fruit is good for you in moderation (one to two servings a day) and when eaten in its whole form. The only populations that should avoid fruit are those who are on a ketogenic diet and those who are following a strict no-sugar protocol as sometimes is done with cancer patients.
Dr. Fayssoux is an integrative primary care practitioner with Ohm & Oot Wellness Medicine and can be reached at (760) 469.9900. For more information, visit www.KinderFayssouxMD.com.