Americans eat way too much added sugar — about 66 pounds a year, per person (1)! And eating all this added and refined sugar is taking a toll on our health, leading to chronic inflammation and increasing our risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, even cancer. But if you switch to a whole food plant based diet, does this mean fruit, with its naturally occurring fructose, is off the table, too?
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Fructose is a simple sugar that occurs naturally in fruit. It's what makes your fruit sweet.
While it can vary from fruit to fruit, generally fruits about made up of half glucose and half fructose. Glucose is what causes your blood sugar to rise, which then triggers your body to use insulin to metabolize it and your body (nearly every cell in it!) uses that glucose for energy. Fructose does not rise your blood sugar and is instead processed by the liver to become glucose.
Fructose also is used commercially to sweeten processed foods (high fructose corn syrup) and makes up about 50% of table sugar.
So is there a difference, nutritionally speaking, between the fructose used in sugary snacks and candies and the fructose in whole fruit, like a banana?
Because only the liver can process fructose, when people eat a lot of processed foods high in fructose, liver damage can occur (2). In these cases, the liver gets overloaded and turns all that sugar into fat. This can lead to all sorts of health issues from insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes to high blood pressure and heart disease to leptin resistance and obesity.
Ok so what about the naturally occurring fructose found in whole fruit? Are you at risk of all the above each time you reach for an apple?
Good news fruit lovers: there's a big difference in between the fructose that occurs naturally and the processed form used to make table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other commercial products.
First, compared to packaged foods, the amount of fructose in fruit is relatively low.
Second, unlike refined sugar, fruit still has its fiber intact. Why does that matter? Fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar in fruit as you digest, which means your liver doesn't get overwhelmed like it would if you were to eat processed forms of fructose (3).
Not to mention, fruit is nutrient dense and low in calories.
Ok, so your liver won't be harmed by whole fruit. What about your blood sugar? Will eating fruit make it spike?
Actually, eating fruit may protect you from blood sugar spikes. This is thought to be in thanks not only to the fiber content of fruit that we mentioned earlier, but also phytonutrients found in fruit which line our intestines and appear to block the absorption of sugar in our bloodstream (4).
Even more amazing? Eating berries in conjunction with high glycemic foods, like white bread for example, reduces the insulin spike altogether, even though you'd be consuming more sugar by adding berries to the meal (5).
While eating fruit can reduce your risk of developing diabetes, what if you already have diabetes?
While it is recommended diabetics choose fruits on the lower end of the glycemic index (berries, kiwi, oranges, mangoes, pears, melon), cutting it out altogether isn't ideal. Not only are you missing out on the important minerals and vitamins (like immunity-boosting Vitamin C) when you cut out fruit, but studies show it doesn't actually help with diabetes. This study concluded that overweight patients with type 2 diabetes who reduced fruit intake did not see any improvements in HbA1c, weight loss, or waist circumference (6).
And remember, eating berries can actually inhibit blood sugar spikes when eaten with high glycemic foods.
So in conclusion: yes! Fruit can definitely be part of your healthy whole food plant-based diet, even if you have diabetes. As always, talk with your health care team about any changes in your diet you plan to make.
Have diabetes and need help kickstarting your whole food plant-based diet? Get started with the MamaSezz Mastering Diabetes Bundle here.
Has a well meaning friend told you to cut out fruit if you want to lose weight? While fad diets may demonize fruit, the science tells another story.
The fruit in fiber again is key as it helps us feel full longer and stabilizes blood sugar, making us less likely to overeat and struggle with weight.
This study revealed if you continue to eat whole fruit but cut out refined sources of fructose you'll lose more weight than those who cut out all forms of fructose (refined sugar or fructose from fruit) (7).
While fruit juice doesn't yield the same benefits as eating whole fruit, smoothies can absolutely be part of your healthy whole food plant-based diet. Researchers have found our bodies may respond to liquid foods with a sharper and faster spike in our blood sugar, so it's best not to chug your smoothie -- take your time and enjoy! Here are our 7 tips for making the perfect healthy plant-based smoothie, every time.
The easiest way to enjoy a healthy vegan smoothie?
Grab our MamaSezz Breakfast Smoothie. It’s rich in protein, fiber, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. And antioxidants! It’s completely plant-based and ready to blend — just add your favorite liquid and you’re good to go.
- Fructose is a simple sugar that occurs naturally in fruit. It's what makes your fruit sweet. It's also processed and used in commercial table sugar and added sweeteners.
- The fructose in whole fruit is different from the sugar found in processed foods and doesn't cause the same blood sugar spikes and dips.
- Eating fruit, especially berries, can actually protect you from blood sugar spikes.
- Studies show diabetics who cut fruit completely from their diet do not see meaningful improvements in their weight or blood sugar levels.
- You can still enjoy fruit if you have type 2 diabetes! Choose lower glycemic fruits to incorporate into your well rounded whole food plant-based diet.
- Eating fruit can lead to weight loss, not weight gain.
- Whole fruit is best, but smoothies can still be enjoyed on a whole food plant-based diet when you follow these guidelines.
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By Ali Brown
Ali is a mom, wife, and nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor. She has her Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.