Is the Sugar in Fruit as Bad for You as Refined Sugar?

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Bananas are high in natural sugars, but they also deliver potassium and other important micronutrients.
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The sugar detox bandwagon continues to pick up more and more passengers, and the health problems associated with added sugar are clearer than ever. Natural sugars, on the other hand, are still pretty mystifying.

After all, fruit is supposed to be good for you. But fruit has sugar, which is not good for you. So does the natural sugar in fruit "count"?

For our Ask the RDs series, we asked readers to send us their biggest nutrition questions and then posed the 12 most common to a panel of registered dietitians. Turns out we weren't the only ones who had questions about sugar in fruit! Here's what the experts had to say about natural sugars and whether or not you can really eat too much fruit.

Is the Sugar in Fruit Bad for You?

"It all depends on what your personal needs are. For example, if you have diabetes or a condition where you really need to monitor your carb and sugar intake, then even the sugar in fruit may need to be accounted for a little more carefully.

But if you don't have a medical condition, remember that the sugar in fruit comes with a lot of good company, like fiber, phytonutrients and vitamins and minerals, whereas sugar in a sugar bowl is not going to do you any good. The goodness of fruit can't even be compared with the sugar that's in a sugar bowl."

"We don't want to completely shun fruit if it's something we enjoy — but sugar is sugar. At the end of the day, it's all about balance. If you're eating a giant bowl of fruit every day and you're not balancing out sugar with other macros, then sugar in fruit can easily pack on the pounds.

But aside from the sugar, there are lots of vitamins and minerals and some fiber in fruit. Fruit is a much better option than candy. But if you're going to have fruit, you have to watch portions, just like with everything else.

"If you're someone who's more focused on eating a natural, whole-food diet, then yes, you'd prefer the sugar in fruit."

The best type of fruit — and I say 'best' from a subjective standpoint — are berries. Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries are going to be the highest in fiber and the lowest in sugar.

The sugar that's in fruit is fructose. Is it any healthier than a packet of sugar, which is sucrose? Not necessarily. But if you're someone who's more focused on eating a natural, whole-food diet, then yes, you'd prefer the sugar in fruit. But it's splitting hairs at that point when it comes to sugar in fruit versus sugar in a packet."

"I get this question all the time. Yes, there is fructose in fruit. However, there are so many nutrients that we can't get from other foods, so the benefit of eating fruit outweighs the sugar.

Especially after our workouts, we need fruit for the nutrients such as potassium, electrolytes and vitamin C. We need it for our health and for building up our immunity.

If you blend fruit with protein, you can lower its effect on your blood sugar. A banana is definitely high in sugar, but if you add it to yogurt or pair it with a tablespoon of almond butter, that can decrease its glycemic load, so it won't have the same effect on your blood sugar levels. I always recommend protein with fruit."

"Fruit is OK to eat: It's nature's fuel source and candy. When you read recommendations about reducing sugar, they refer to added sugar, not naturally occurring sugars, which are found in fruit, some vegetables and [lactose-containing] dairy.

The sugar in fruit is healthier than refined sugar because you're not just getting a tablespoon of sugar — you're getting a whole lot of nutrients that come along with it. If you're eating an apple, you'll get some naturally occurring sugar, but you'll also get fiber and all the wonderful nutrients that come in an apple."

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How Much Fruit Is Too Much?

Taub-Dix: "The amount of fruit you should eat each day depends on your weight and your blood sugar levels. If you're aiming for nine servings of fruit and vegetables per day and making half your plate produce, I always think it's better to have a greater ratio of vegetables to fruit.

I've seen people eat way too much fruit — like 1,500 calories' worth of fruit. That's because they buy containers of fruit already cut up or they're drinking a lot of juice. If you think you're a fruit over-doer, then try to eat fruit that takes longer to eat — something you can bite into or cut with a knife and eat pieces of instead of drinking juice and buying pre-cut fruit."

Largeman-Roth: "Most people are not eating enough fruits or vegetables. So, the question of how much fruit is too much is one that, I'd say, most people shouldn't even be considering. I suppose if you were only eating fruit, and eating it all day long, it may take up space other nutrients would be filling. You should get vegetables as well as dairy, lean protein sources, nuts and grains. I don't really see eating too much fruit as a problem."

White: "About 75 percent of Americans aren't getting enough fruits and vegetables at the end of the day. I always say shoot for two to three fruits per day. I always recommend that if people don't eat fruit, they need to eat a large number of vegetables to get the proper nutrients. But there's a huge place in your diet for fruit."

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What About Dried Fruit?

Taub-Dix: "Dried fruit could be higher in sugar and calories, and there's a tendency to eat more because it's smaller than fresh fruit. But dried fruit is also higher in iron and is a good source of fiber."

Largeman-Roth: "Dried fruit can also be healthy, but you want to pick dried fruit without added sugars. For many consumers, that can be a little tricky. You have to look at the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list. If your dried fruit of choice is raisins, you want the ingredient list to just say 'grapes' or 'raisins.' Same thing with prunes. They're super sweet, and people think that they're sweetened, but they're not — that's just the naturally occurring sugar.

But because dried fruit does not have the water content that fresh fruit does, it's sometimes not as filling. People might not be as satisfied with one prune and may want to eat more. Just keep the calories and serving sizes in mind."

The Takeaway

Fruit does have natural sugar (in the form of fructose), but it also has nutrients that are key to a balanced diet, such as fiber, potassium and vitamin C. For most people, the nutritional benefits of fruit far outweigh the sugar content. Eat a variety of fruit and pair them with protein to lessen their effect on your blood sugar levels (aka glycemic load). For a lower-sugar, higher-fiber option, choose berries. You can also enjoy dried fruit, but watch your portion sizes.

Confused about nutrition? Get answers to more common questions in our Ask the RDs series.

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