Does Sugar in Fruit Cause Inflammation? Here's What Dietitians Say

If excessive sugar may increase the risk of chronic inflammation, should you avoid sugar?

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Reviewed by Dietitian Maria Laura Haddad-Garcia

The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks chronic inflammatory diseases as one of the greatest threats to human health. Not to bear bad news, but sadly, in 2000, more than 125 million Americans had a disease linked with chronic inflammation, and over 61 million were living with more than one.

Inflammation is a term you’ve likely heard before. It can actually be beneficial when it’s in response to an injury, like stubbing your toe. This signals that your body’s natural defense system is activating and getting to work in the short term, which is known as acute inflammation. On the flip side, when acute inflammation doesn’t resolve itself and persists long-term, this can lead to serious consequences, including chronic inflammation, which is associated with a cascade of poor health outcomes.

Before we scare you off, there is good news! Diet and lifestyle choices can significantly impact chronic inflammation. However, you must tread lightly when you read the headlines surrounding diet and inflammation. For instance, you may have heard you need to cut out sugar to avoid chronic inflammation since excessive added sugar consumption increases your risk.

Wondering if the apple you have in your hand is a good choice or not, you search the web and are even more confused than ever since, technically, fruit contains sugar. Rest assured, we have you covered in this article. We’ve spoken to registered dietitian nutritionists and a certified diabetes educator to get the facts on fruits and inflammation.

Related: Does Dairy Cause Inflammation? Here's What a Dietitian Says

Understanding The Different Types of Sugar

Foods are made up of added or natural sugars, and sometimes a little bit of both. While added and natural sugars break down during digestion into glucose, we digest them a bit differently, largely because of their nutrient composition.

“Natural sugars are found naturally in food, such as fruits, vegetables and dairy and typically are bound in a matrix of beneficial nutrients including fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Because of this, these sugars are generally digested more slowly and have less impact on blood sugar levels,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, a New Jersey-based dietitian, certified diabetes educator and author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet.

On the other hand, “Added sugars are sugars that are added to food during processing or preparation,” adds Palinski-Wade. Plus, they don’t provide an additional nutritional value and are digested quicker than their natural counterparts, causing a greater impact on blood sugar levels.

How Do Fruits Rank on the Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index (GI) measures how quickly food (specifically 50 grams of carbohydrates) is absorbed into your bloodstream. The problem with GI is we often eat foods with a smaller amount of carbs and in combination with other foods, which also affects how one’s blood sugar responds. With this in mind, Palinski-Wade shares, “Fruits generally have a low to moderate glycemic index, meaning they cause a gradual rise in blood sugar levels rather than a rapid spike.” Cara Harbstreet, M.S., RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition shares that some low to moderate GI fruits include cherries, apricots, plums, apples, pears, berries and grapes.

Both Palinski-Wade and Harbstreet agree that GI is a bit outdated and the glycemic load (GL) is a better tool to decipher how foods, like fruits, will affect blood sugar levels. The GL considers the standard portion of a food typically consumed and its impact on blood sugar. For instance, watermelon is considered a food high on the glycemic index, with a GI score of 74. On the other hand, when considering the actual portion of watermelon consumed in a standard portion, the glycemic load is relatively low at 4.

But don’t fret! You don’t need to remember GI or GL or any other specific acronym. Instead, see how different fruits make you feel after you eat them. And remember that fruit contains fiber, which slows down the absorption of its naturally-occurring sugar into your bloodstream. Also, pairing fruit with healthy fat or protein sources, such as nuts, seeds and dairy, helps prevent high sugar spikes even more.

Related: 12 Low-Sugar Fruits You Should Be Eating, Recommended by Dietitians

What Causes Inflammation?

Let’s make this clear: chronic inflammation doesn’t happen overnight. Just because you eat a cookie that contains added sugar or have a large banana instead of a small one does not mean you will wake up with chronic inflammation. Despite what the internet may tell you, that’s just not how it works.

While excessive added sugar consumption may lead to chronic inflammation, it’s not the only risk factor. A sedentary lifestyle, lack of exercise, genetics, weight and smoking are other risk factors associated with chronic inflammation.

So, instead of spinning your wheels on eliminating all processed foods and sugars from your diet, focus on supporting your body with nutrient-dense foods with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce proinflammatory markers in your body.

Related: Should You Be Taking an Antioxidant Supplement? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say

What About Sugar in Fruit?

Here’s the deal: “In theory, it could, but in reality, probably not,” shares Harbstreet. Because the natural sugars in fruits are paired together in a pretty nutrient package containing fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants, it’s unlikely that the natural sugar in fruit would cause inflammation.

In fact, decades of research show the opposite regarding the nutrient density of our produce friends. A 2022 study confirmed that the active compounds in fruits, like antioxidants, provide powerful anti-inflammatory effects and should be included in one’s diet.

While the mixed headlines may seem confusing, we assure you, as Harbstreet says, “It’s better to think of fruit as greater than the sum of its parts instead of isolating the sugar content. These other nutrients readily found in fruit can actually support well-being and combat inflammation.”

Related: The 6 Best Antioxidant-Rich Fruits to Reduce Inflammation, According to a Dietitian

The Bottom Line

Nutrition experts agree that consuming natural sugars from fruits does not cause inflammation. In fact, Palinski-Wade says, “A diet rich in fruit can help to fight inflammation [thanks to its antioxidants], so avoiding fruit to reduce natural sugars may limit the body’s ability to fight against inflammation.” Instead of fearing fruits for their sugar content, consider pairing them with a protein and/or fat to help slow down the absorption of sugar while offering a bit more satiety.

Related: 30-Day Anti-Inflammatory Meal Plan

Frequently Asked Questions

Are fruits an inflammatory food?

The short answer is no! Despite their sugar content, fruits are packed with antioxidants that actually help fight inflammation in your body.

Does cutting out sugar reduce inflammation?

Limiting your added sugar can help prevent chronic inflammation, but there’s no need to cut it out completely. Instead, focus on exercising regularly, limit your alcohol consumption, if you smoke, try to quit and incorporate nutritious foods into your diet.

Does sugar in fruit count towards your daily sugar intake?

While the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugar to no more than 10% of total daily calories, the sugar found in fruit would not count towards this allotment.

Read the original article on Eating Well.