With the war against sugar raging, many wonder if it’s coming for fruit, which is high in the sweet stuff. Fruit is a go-to snack (think: the jersey pocket banana) for cyclists who often need something they can grab on their way out the door or munch on during long rides.
So do active people, like cyclists, really need to worry about fruit sugars? We spoke with Kelly Hogan, M.S., R.D. and Torey Armul, M.S., R.D., L.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to find out what’s what.
Excess sugar intake has been linked to weight gain, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes, and there’s no question that fruit is packed with the sweet stuff. Some trendy diets such as Whole30 and keto shun sugar, even when it comes from fruit, making people wonder if fruit is the healthy snack we’ve been led to believe it is.
Fruit contains three types of sugar: fructose, glucose, and a combination of the two, called sucrose, which makes up table sugar. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, which is the brain and body’s main and preferred first source of fuel during exercise because it doesn’t take a lot of effort to convert to energy.
But, research has shown that too much sugar has been linked to a whole host of undesirable outcomes. In fact, a study published in the journal PLOS One found that for every 150 calories of added sugar a person consumed, their risk of diabetes went up by 1.1 percent. And another study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who consumed the most added sugar—25 percent or more of their daily calories from it—were nearly three times as likely to die of heart disease than those who took in less than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars.
How does that relate to fruit, though? Is there any difference between the sweet stuff in things like strawberries and bananas versus that in soda and Swedish fish?
Both contain sugar, but they affect your body differently. Let’s look at the nutritional profile of each.
A can of soda, for example, is 140 calories of sugar and nothing else. It provides no health benefit. But fruit isn’t just sugar: It also provides vitamins and minerals such as vitamins A and C, potassium, and folate, as well as fiber, which is good for digestive health. Not to mention, it is also packed with antioxidants, which can reduce inflammation and boost your immune system.
Compare that can of soda with a banana. For 110 calories, the banana also contains potassium for muscle function, natural sugar, and a little protein to slow the absorption of that sugar so it doesn’t spike your blood sugar levels.
“Fruit contains natural sugar,” says Hogan. “And when we eat whole fruit, it’s not the same thing as eating added sugar or the typical sugary foods like dessert. Fruit contains fiber and nutrients that help the body absorb other nutrients.”
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Yes, fruit has sugar in it. And some, like mangos, are very high in sugar. But eating a cup (or two) of brain health-boosting blueberries isn’t going to cause weight gain or put you on the path of type 2 diabetes, says Armul.
And past research supports this: A review in the Journal of Diabetes Investigation concluded that the more fruit you eat, the less likely you are to develop type 2 diabetes. Additionally, another review in the European Journal of Nutrition linked increased fruit consumption to a lesser chance of developing obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
“I’ve never had a client who gained too much weight from eating fruit,” she says. “The bigger problem is we’re not eating enough fruit.”
Where you need to be careful is dried fruit, fruit juice, and smoothies, says Hogan, since they’re all higher in sugar than their fresh counterparts—and the sugar is more concentrated, which makes it more calorie-dense.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the serving size of one medium fruit is something as big as your fist. Fresh, frozen, or canned fruit is half a cup, and dried fruit and fruit juice are both one-quarter of a cup.
Eat a half a bag of dried pineapple, and, along with risking GI trouble, you’ll also take in 800 calories and 168 grams of sugar—and that’s a lot of extra calories.
That’s not to say you should avoid dried fruit entirely, though. Carrying a few pieces with you on your long rides can help restock your glycogen stores so you won’t bonk.
“We can’t deny that dried fruit is higher in sugar,” she says. “But there’s a time and place for it. It makes a good snack if you’re hiking or going for a long ride.”
When it comes to fruit juice, your best bet is 100 percent real fruit juice, which means you’re just getting the natural sugar from fruit. Still, it’s not as ideal as the whole stuff: Juice doesn’t carry the same nutrients, like fiber, says Hogan, and it can be easy to consume excess sugar and calories in liquid form.
Similarly, smoothies can be a sneaky calorie and sugar bomb. If you order out, opt for smoothies that contain plain greek yogurt, fruit, and veggies, without added sugar like honey or agave syrup.
The best way to go is to make your own, so you can limit how much sugar goes into it. Add protein—like plain, full-fat yogurt and peanut butter—to help you feel full and to kick-start muscle repair, says Armul.
So go ahead, enjoy your fruit in all its forms, especially the whole fresh or frozen kind, which is just as nutritious. For other fruity options, just choose a little more carefully: Make sure your smoothies have some protein and fat, too—which will both help build and maintain muscle mass and keep you fuller for longer—and don’t have added sugar sources like honey. As for fruit juice and dried fruit? While you might not want to eat or drink them every day, there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself in moderation every so often, especially when you’re riding a lot.
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