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Not all sugars are created equal

Are you confused about whether or not fruit is healthy because it contain fructose?

We all know that fructose in things like high fructose corn syrup (or glucose-fructose here in Canada) found in processed refined foods are bad for us. But fructose is in fruit too. Does that mean fruit is bad for me?

To understand the full picture, let’s first take a look at what fructose is and how it’s broken down in your body.

Fructose is a type of sugar. Anything with an “ose” ending is a sugar. It occurs naturally in fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds. It’s what gives these foods their sweetness.

Glucose is another form of sugar. It’s the most basic form and also found in plants. Glucose is required by all of your cells for energy and the only form of sugar that can be transported directly into your blood stream. If you don’t get glucose form external source, your body will actually make it.

Fructose can’t be absorbed directly into your blood stream. Instead it’s broken down by your liver, where it’s converted into energy, fat or glucose before it can be used by other organs. This is where some of the problems arise. The breaking down can also produce toxins and by-products such as free fatty acids which are linked with liver insulin resistance, VLDL’s which are the bad form of cholesterol, and tryglicerides which at high levels can increase your risk for atherosclerosis and heart disease. High consumption of fructose has also been linked to gout, non-alcoholic fatly liver disease and hypertension.

If you only ate fructose from their natural plant sources, you’d likely be okay. Because along with the sweetness you also get vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre and other goodies.

But unfortunately, our moderns diets have become extremely high in fructose. It’s added to processed foods, pop, baked goods, candy, and many other packaged foods. So many of you are consuming very high levels of fructose on a daily basis.

Not only is fructose hard on the liver, it also impacts your hunger hormones. Ghrelin, the hormone that controls hunger is lessened when you eat glucose, but not when you eat fructose. This means that you don’t feel full after eating fructose and therefore you’re likely to overeat.

The message here is that not all sugars are created equal. Fructose and glucose are very different and have significantly different impacts on your body. Fructose can lead to a variety of healthy challenges. If you already suffer from health concerns related to blood sugar, liver, weight, and/or heart I’d recommend keeping your fructose intake to very moderate levels.

Four tips for minimizing the negative effects of fructose:

1. Eliminate processed foods

This is my number one recommendation for everyone. These foods are not providing you with anything beneficial. They are detrimental to your health. And many of them have added fructose to make them taste good. Start removing the obvious suspects like junk food, candy, fast food and baked goods. And read the labels. If fructose-glucose is listed as one of the first few ingredients please put it back on the shelf.

2. Enjoy whole fruit

Getting back to our original question about fruit, I think whole fruit is great. If plants are your only source of fructose you are doing just fine. But not if you are eating processed, refined foods with added sugars as well. You’ll want to cut those out first. Fruit has a lot of great fibre to slow the absorption of all the sugars (eat the peeling if you can), plus a whole bunch of great vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which can minimize the downsides of fructose. So please do enjoy whole fruit.

3. Avoid fruit juices

While whole fruit is good, you want to stay away from fruit juices. They are just as bad as soda pop because all of the good stuff is taken out or lost in the processing and you are left with pure fructose. This also goes for juicing at home and juice bars. You are much better off with a smoothie that uses the whole fruit.

4. Choose healthier sweeteners

Ideally, you’re avoiding as much sugar as possible and eating a diet rich in whole foods. If this is the case, every once in awhile baking a homemade treat for yourself and your family is definitely okay! Here are the sweeteners I recommend:

— Green stevia powder. A very minute amount of stevia can go a long way. It’s very low glycemic. Make sure to get the green leaf powder to ensure it has not been processed to death.

— Fresh raw dates – Even though they are fairly high in fructose they have lots of great fibre and are whole foods. A couple dates in a recipe can add some nice sweetness.

— Local maple syrup and honey – Yes they both contain fructose, but you can get them both here in Nova Scotia locally, are minimally processed, and do have some minerals. While your liver won’t know the difference between them and other sugars, if using them in a homemade recipe you can keep the amount low. I feel, as part of a whole foods lifestyle, these are fine choices.

*This post was originally published in the Herald Community on July 29, 2014

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