One of the ironies about nutrition is that so much information is readily available and known about it, that almost no one outside of specialists knows anything about it. That’s including most doctors. If you were to look at the amount of time most doctors focus on nutrition over the courses of their educations, you would see you learned nearly as much about it over the years combing through Google for articles pertaining to your particular questions. It’s quite shocking, given how important food is to health. I have found that one of the reasons food is so confusing to people is that many articles are very narrow, and thus, cannot necessarily place particular assertions within a broader context.
Let’s look at sugar for a moment. For how many decades we were told to avoid all fat at all cost to the preference of carbohydrates? And now the backlash against sugar has been just as strident and overly broad. Sugar itself is not your enemy. First off, there are multiple types of sugar, and each is treated differently by your body. Processed, refined and added sugar is the type of carbohydrate you want to limit within your diet. Especially insidious is high fructose corn syrup. Fructose: We’ll come back to that.
Sugar, of itself, is your body’s preferred source of energy. The type you use to live is called glucose when it is dissolved in your blood, glycogen when it is stored in your muscles and liver, and dextrose when it is in your food. Dextrose is made from corn, and its chemical composition is identical to glucose. The problem with sugar by itself in the diet is that it immediately spikes your insulin levels and creates a cascade of potential health risk factors. One type of sugar is fructose (fruit sugar), and it has to be processed in your liver. Your liver can store 25g of it, and the rest of any unused fructose is stored as fat. (This is where the theme music for “Jaws” starts.)
Now suddenly you have people telling you to avoid fruit. Fruit is nature’s candy. I have made that quip. As with many people, I learn as I go. I also used to train people on wobble boards, but I abandoned that 16 years ago. It was 2004, and everyone was doing it. Mea culpa. I can admit when I am wrong. Back to fruit, fructose, sugar and candy.
When a plant is processed in such a way that all its fiber is removed, the remaining juices are generally stripped clean of most of the nutrition and anything of redeeming quality that kept the negative impacts of sugar at bay. In whole grains, complete starches, and fresh fruits and vegetables, the peels, stalks, husks, fleshes and pulps are where the largest portion of the nutrition reside. It is also the source of the fiber that slows down the digestion, absorption and onset of effects of sugar. Generally speaking, a piece of candy is a naked fruit painted in gaudy colors. And that can be fabulous for lip synching on television, but in large doses it’s not good for your health.
But fructose in its natural state is not naked. It comes fully dressed in an outfit of fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and water. The hugest part of fruit is water. Compare grapes to raisins, or fresh blueberries to dried ones. The dehydrated examples are tiny by comparison. That’s how much water there is in fruit. I’m not sure that dehydration itself increases the sugar content of fruit, but what I am certain of is this: with so much water removed, you can eat far more dried fruit before you feel full. Perhaps, it’s more helpfully specific to say that DRIED fruit is nature’s candy? That I might get behind.
Fruit is a beautiful and healthful food. You really must eat it, unless allergies or medical contraindications prevent it. I love grapefruit, but I cannot eat it anymore, because it can cause my medications for Bipolar Disorder to become too strong and potentially fatal. That is a valid reason not to eat that particular fruit. “Fruit is nature’s candy” is not a valid reason. Even when some fruits score “poorly” on Glycemic Index charts, I would push back and point out that by that measure ice cream is better for you than watermelon. Fruit, for the most part, is not going to cause the typical person to gain weight. But please don’t go eat six watermelons and then email to complain to me that you can no longer fit in your pants. That isn’t what I said to do. Portions. Portions, portions, portions.
One caveat: Avoid or restrict drinking fruit juice (even when labeled “no added sugars”), as it is very easy to swallow a vast amount of sugar very quickly. Rather, eat an orange as opposed to drinking a glass of orange juice. You will feel fuller, get a great kick of nutrition, mitigate insulin spikes and save yourself room in your meals to eat other foods instead.
Jack Kirven completed the MFA in Dance at UCLA, and earned certification as a personal trainer through NASM. His wellness philosophy is founded upon integrated lifestyles as opposed to isolated workouts. Visit him at jackkirven.com and INTEGRE8Twellness.com.