All sugar is not created equal

At this point in history, we can confidently blame American’s high sugar intake on the development of a variety of chronic disease; from cancer, to heart disease and diabetes, sugar has either caused or contributed to these epidemics.  Through the years, as we ate and drank more sugar, we got chronically sicker at a rate that far outpaced previous generations.  And it’s no wonder why – consuming sugar-sweetened beverages as a daily habit raises your risk of developing diabetes by 83%!  And what’s worse, most people have the common sense to know that drinking soda and eating sugar is bad for the body, plain and simple.

So knowing that processed sugar is unhealthy for the body, where does that leave us with the sugar found in fruit?  Let’s start by looking at a few different sugars: glucose, fructose, sucrose.  Glucose is the most common sugar found throughout the body and is used by almost every single cell of the body.  There’re even some cells in the body, like red blood cells, that can only use glucose as their energy source.  This is the sugar we are talking about when we refer to blood sugar.  Sucrose is another name for table sugar.  Sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose.  Sucrose, like glucose, causes a spike in blood sugar and insulin release when eaten.   Fructose, on the other hand, is the type of sugar that is found in fruit.  We also find it in other places like high fructose corn syrup, one of the main ingredients used in soda. When we ingest fructose, it goes straight to the liver for storage or to be converted to different forms of energy, and does not spike the blood sugar.  It has no immediate effect on our insulin levels.  No harm done, right?  We have an all-natural sugar that does not raise blood sugar.  How fantastic.  However, it’s important to understand that excessive amounts of fructose can put an incredible amount of stress on the liver.  The more fructose we eat, the more we accumulate in the liver.  And once fructose builds up in the liver, it turns to fat- causing, high-levels of triglycerides in the blood, and eventually fatty liver disease.

When you stop eating and become more active the liver will begin to breakdown the fructose and convert it into glucose, readily available to the body’s cells.  If you are sedentary, your body will not require a large amount of energy and will start to turn this excess fructose into fat, contributing to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.  Does this mean it’s ok to consume fructose?  Like many complicated topics, the answer is a resounding ‘that depends.’

Consider the dose

So what factors does this depend on?  It’s important to know your body’s energy state before you are consuming any type of carbohydrate, especially fructose.  If you’ve just eaten a large meal, meaning you are now in a high energy state, your liver and muscles are most likely full and any excess fructose (fruit) you take into your body will likely be stored in the liver as fat.  However, if you’re in a low energy state, maybe you just worked out or haven’t eaten in a while, your liver will turn most of the fructose you consume into glucose and glycogen (the storage form of glucose) and use it to fuel the body and maintain a healthy blood sugar.  What’s even more important is the source of your fructose.

Choose your fructose wisely

There is a huge difference between eating fructose found in fruit and drinking high-fructose corn-syrup found in soda.  The main difference?  The amount.  Consider the fact that the average American eats about 80 grams of fructose…per day!  This is way too much.  This causes the liver to work overtime, expending a lot of time and energy converting the excess fructose into fat.  An even bigger problem is most of this fructose comes in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.  Because high-fructose corn syrup is 55% fructose and 45% glucose, you get a spike in blood sugar and a buildup of fat in the liver.  Now let’s say you get your fructose from a healthier source, like an apple.  The fiber in that apple will not only help with regular bowel movements, but also slow the release of the fructose from the stomach to the small intestine, blood stream, and ultimately the liver.  This is a much easier and natural way for the liver to process fructose.  Also, it’s important to realize there are about 20 grams of carbs in an apple, and about 7 of these are in the form of fiber. This means there are about 13 grams of net carbs in the apple.  And again, depending on your energy state, this is a completely healthy choice.  This is a lot different than drinking 40 grams of carbs in a soda.  Obviously, these two food choices have drastically different effects on the liver.

Like most things in the world of nutrition, what happens to fructose once it enters your body is relatively complicated.  It’s no wonder there is so much confusion surrounding fruit and fructose consumption.  It’s extremely important that before eating fructose you consider the source, the dose, and your body’s energy state.  Your liver will thank you.