Eat Empowered, Healthy Eating Tips, Sugar

Is the Natural Sugar Found in Whole Foods Healthier Than Added Sugar?

Ask Keri: I’m trying to cut back on sugar. But is natural sugar healthier than added sugar?

Keri Says: It’s the million dollar (or calorie!) question. Over the past few years, we’ve learned more about how too much sugar can promote obesity and other related health issues such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Research is now showing that sugar is worse for your heart than salt, and that dependency, binges, and withdrawal can lead to changes in blood sugar that can disrupt sleep, fuel overeating, and leave you tired (I know, you’re already exhausted by that list!).

The bottom line is that all of those issues are caused by added sugar in the American diet, not the sugars that occur naturally in some healthy, whole foods. In fact, the FDA is even getting on board with this point with the revised nutrition facts label, which will differentiate between natural and added sugars once it’s fully implemented over the next few years.

RELATED: 4 Reasons You Have Sugar Cravings

Yes, naturally-occurring sugar is still sugar and there are some ways to overdo it, but I promise you bananas are not fueling the obesity epidemic. Here’s why.

Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

First, the basics.

Added sugars are essentially any sugars added during the processing of foods, including refined white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and slightly better sugars (which are often described as “natural” but are still added, not naturally-occurring!) like maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar. (Those are better than table sugar but are still super concentrated and need to be eaten in small amounts).

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On the other hand, sugar occurs naturally in fruit (a small apple or cup of berries contains approximately 15 grams), dairy, and some veggies like beets, sweet potatoes, and corn (which is technically a grain, I know!).

Here’s the biggest difference: That spoonful of refined table sugar added to your salad dressing or breakfast cereal causes inflammation and turns to fat fast if it’s not needed for energy. The apple, meanwhile, contains other nutrients that impact how your body breaks down the sugar. Fiber, for instance, slows its digestion to head off a blood-sugar spike. And yogurt, for example, contains protein that helps your body process the natural sugar (not the heaps of added sugar that is often also added to some brands!) at a slower pace. Not to mention all of the other incredible nutrients you’re getting from those foods, like vitamins, minerals, and probiotics.

The fact is: nature is kind of a master of design, and most of the time, sugar occurs in a food for a reason your body will parse out as it processes that food’s entire complex web of nutrients. Nature also doesn’t expect you to only eat one food over and over, so just don’t overdo it.

My Advice on Sugar

Again, this is not to say you should go on an all banana-and-Greek yogurt diet. But if you’re eating mostly whole foods, you can focus on worrying about other things (there’s so much to worry about, right?) rather than wasting your time fretting about how sweet that sweet potato is.

There are just a few places natural sugar might present an issue: Eat dried fruit in small, controlled portions, since the sugar becomes ultra-concentrated in the drying process. And skip juices that are primarily fruit. When fruit is juiced, the fiber I mentioned earlier is stripped out, leaving way too much free-floating sugar behind. Make smoothies, instead, or go as green as possible with your juices.

RECIPE: Super Greens Green Juice

Other than that, feel free to enjoy natural sugar and use the time you save worrying about it to always be on the lookout for added sugars lurking in unexpected places, like tomato sauces, salad dressings, and bread.

(Featured Photo: Shutterstock)