We're in the midst of a real sugar panic. In case you haven't heard, sugar is supposedly poison and we've got to stop eating it immediately otherwise the world is going to end! Even sugar in fruit is bad! And, eating a banana for breakfast is the same thing as eating candy! These are real things that people say, and they are all ridiculous, especially the stuff about fruit. It's fruit, you guys. But nevertheless many of us have been gaslit into believing that fruit is somehow bad for us because it contains sugar, so what's the deal, really?
For starters, there are two different types of sugars found in food: sugar that's present naturally, like fructose, the sugar in fruit, or lactose, the sugar in milk products; and added sugar, which is any sugar or sweetener that's added to food or drinks when it's prepared or processed, says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating coach. When you look at fruit and candy, the sources of sugar are different, but your body can't really tell, she says. "It could be white sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave, or high-fructose corn syrup — they're all processed by your body in a similar way," she says.
Added sugar is not necessarily a Bad Thing across the board, and you have to look at it in context of a person's diet, Rumsey says. For example, if you want to eat dessert, then eating it is likely going to lead to better choices down the line than depriving yourself. But sugar often sneakily added to foods that you wouldn't expect (like pasta sauce), which can stimulate your appetite and make it harder to pay attention to hunger cues. Natural sugar that you'd find in whole fruit, on the other hand, is there for a reason: to add flavor and provide energy.
This might sound shocking, but your body actually needs some sugar to function. "Sugar is basically the smallest unit of carbohydrates, and we need carbohydrates," Rumsey says. "Our body and brains run on those." From a nutrient perspective, fruit is rich in lots of stuff besides just sugar, like fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, she says. In other words, it's not "just a sugar bomb," and comparing fruit to candy is like comparing apples to oranges, so to speak.
And speaking of comparing fruits, some people are under the impression that certain fruits are "better for you" because they contain less natural sugar than others. But here's the thing: "Focusing on the grams of sugar is so pointless," Rumsey says. (Even for individuals with diabetes, the total amount of carbohydrates is more important than the amount of sugar in a type of fruit.) What matters more is what fruit you enjoy eating, what tastes good to you, and what you like adding in your meals, she says. Not to mention, the "difference" in sugar content is so minimal that it likely would not make a difference, she says.
It's tough to say when and if people will ever calm down about sugar, but the fact of the matter is whenever we try to restrict certain types or amounts of foods, that triggers cravings, which leads to overeating and binging, Rumsey says. "If you think about it, as soon as you tell yourself you can't have something, what is it you think about? The thing you told yourself you can't have," she says. Feeling like you have to avoid "off-limits foods," whether that's a very sweet fruit or a candy bar, can also cause anxiety that can affect your health, she says. The challenge is finding a balance between eating a balanced diet without having to restrict yourself, and being okay if you make choices to eat foods with added sugar, she says.
In other words, chill out and don't sweat the sweet stuff.