Fruit vs Sugar Is There a Difference?

July 2024 - Health & Wellness

Can our bodies actually tell the difference between natural sugar in berries and refined sugar? I really love this question! The nuance surrounding food and how your body digests it is an important conversation.

In the current trend in nutrition, where carbs are out of fashion, it’s easy to get swept up in oversimplifications like “all starches turn into sugar” or “sugar can damage your health”. While there’s a sprinkle of truth here, we’re missing the nuance. And nuance, my friend, is everything. Let’s bring in a bit more context.

It’s true that starchy food (hello, potatoes) breaks down into glucose (yep, that’s sugar) eventually. So do fruits, and, indeed, so does plain white sugar.

But… so do broccoli and cauliflower, those low-carb all-stars. Heck, if you’re not eating enough carbs, your body will even convert half the protein in your diet into glucose. Should we then avoid these foods? Absolutely not.

Here’s the nuance… Glucose is basically your cells’ favourite fuel. It keeps your brain functioning and your energy up. Without enough of it, your body starts screaming for sugar. If you’ve spent time on a low-carb diet, you’ve probably heard these screams. They don’t happen at first, but often over time, your body tries to lure you toward a favourite carby snack to get some easier-to-access glucose.

But here’s the most important point: your body loves to get its glucose in a slow, steady trickle. Almost all natural glucose sources (except honey) are packed with nutrients and fibre. In whole starchy food (again, potatoes) the glucose is often bound up in long chains (complex carbs) that take time to digest. These are natural “brakes” that slow your digestion and allow glucose to slowly trickle into your bloodstream.

Refined sugar, like white sugar, refined glucose, and the notorious high fructose corn syrup, isn’t found in nature. Those natural brakes, like nutrients, fibre and long chains of glucose, have been removed. These sugars break down at warp speed, causing your blood sugar to spike a lot faster and give you a “sugar rush”.

Refined starches (I’m looking at you, white flour) digest quickly too because the fibre and nutrients have been removed to increase shelf life. Those nutrients and the natural fats found in the bran make flour go rancid very quickly and are removed so it can spend years on grocery shelves.

The worst of the worst are sugary drinks. They hit your system like a freight train of glucose, with no digestion required. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is 50% glucose/50% fructose. The glucose goes straight into your bloodstream, but the fructose needs to be converted by your liver into glucose before it can be used. Your blood sugar will already be high from the refined glucose, so the fructose just gets stored away, first as fat in the liver (research suggests that HFCS may be connected to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease), and then in your fat cells.

The blood sugar rollercoaster of highs and lows is a problem, leading to inflammation, insulin resistance and possibly type 2 diabetes over time. Your body can handle the odd sugar splurge, but many hits each day? That’s a recipe for trouble.

So, back to the original question: is there a difference between nutrient-packed, fibre-rich berries and a spoonful of refined sugar? You bet there is. And if someone tries to tell you otherwise, they’re probably peddling their low-carb mantra a bit too hard. Our bodies thrive on a balance of carbs, fats and proteins. But man, products fly off the shelves when we’re told to fear one macronutrient over the others! High-protein pasta, anyone?

So…why do I crave sugar?
One of the reasons we feel such a drive to eat sugar is that we deny ourselves the pleasure of eating something sweet. Because sugar is currently a villain, so many of us have removed everything remotely sweet from our diet.

Sweet is simply a flavour. And we have a natural drive for this flavour because of how rare it’s found in nature. In the past, one would have had to wait for the summer to enjoy ripe, sweet fruit.
But the food manufacturers have done a great job at harnessing our natural love of sweet foods and making it abundantly available. Sweets are everywhere. Refined, cheap processed sugar is in everything from drinks to tomato sauce, to kick up our natural drive and make us want to buy more.
Those of you with willpower (I do not include myself) may have been able to remove everything sweet from your diet for a while (I last less than a day), but what happens if you go without for too long? Most of us binge.

But it’s not a sign of “weakness”, it’s a natural reaction to deprivation in a society filled with sugar. Natural, whole sweet foods are the perfectly packaged bursts of sweet your body is looking for. By allowing those foods, like fruit and berries, you’re giving your body what it’s looking for without the troubles of refined sugar.

It’s absolutely a-okay to have those favourite sweet foods when you want them. It’s about balance.
So, when your sugar cravings hit, remember it’s your body’s request for balance. Find the foods your body loves and enjoy every single bite. 

Lisa Kilgour, rhn is one of Nature’s Fare Markets’ nutritionists and sought-after speaker and educator who helps people heal from diverse and complex health issues. She has spoken at TEDxKelowna and is the author of Undieting: Freedom from the Bewildering World of Fad Diets.
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Article was published in The Good Life magazine.

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