Why This R.D. Says Not All Sugar Is Created Equal

Is there a difference between the sugar in a doughnut and sugar found in fruit? It's a question that clients regularly ask their registered dietitians, and it's easy to see why it might be confusing. News articles and our culture often vilify sugar, all sugar, which leaves many people wondering, should they abandon fruit and the sugar in it altogether?

Is All Sugar the Same?

Sugar in a doughnut and sugar in an orange is not equivalent. The doughnut has added sugar, which means it's not a natural part of the food, but rather gets added by humans during processing. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugar. Thus, if you eat 2,000 calories per day, that is 200 calories or 12.5 teaspoons of sugar. Many women eat fewer calories per day, so if you eat 1,600 calories per day, that is 160 calories or 10 teaspoons of sugar. There are many hidden sources of added sugar, including sauces (like barbecue), dressings, granola bars, flavored yogurt and fruit juice, so those teaspoons of sugar can add up quickly.

The sugar found in an orange, on the other hand, is naturally there, but the orange carries with it far fewer calories (65) than the doughnut (about 350). An orange also provides 3.4 grams of fiber, which is equivalent to 14 percent of the recommended daily amount, plus all the vitamin C you need in one day and smaller amounts of numerous B-vitamins including folate and potassium. On the flip side, that doughnut is all calories, saturated fat and added sugar without much nutritional value.

Besides all the vitamins, minerals and fiber, fruit also provides phytochemicals, or natural plant compounds. While the research on phytochemicals is still evolving (and very exciting!), there is some evidence that they can help fight and prevent disease.

Does Fruit Make Me Fat?

A common misconception is that the sugar from fruit will cause weight gain because it increases blood sugar. While sugar does increase blood sugar levels, your body is designed to handle these spikes. Once your body digests fruit, it absorbs the various components, including sugar. This triggers the body to secrete insulin to bring your blood sugar back within normal range. Insulin alerts your cells and muscles to use the blood sugar for energy.

And what if you don't use the sugar? If you eat more calories than you expend, your body will store excess sugar from any food as fat. However, if fruit is part of a calorie-controlled, balanced diet, your cells will utilize it as energy. As with any food, whether it's Oreos or apples, it's important to exercise moderation. After all, a calorie is still a calorie, so if you're looking to lose weight, factor fruit into your diet in a healthy manner and don't use it as an excuse to binge.

For many with diabetes watching their blood sugar levels closely, fruit presents a bit of confusion. However, the American Diabetes Association does recommend including fruit in a balanced diabetes-friendly diet. In fact, many fruits have shown to have various health benefits for diabetes as well as heart disease, eye health and cancer. Fruit does have carbohydrates, though, so it's important to factor in those grams of carbs and balance them into the overall meal and snack plan and medication regiment. If you do have diabetes and are unsure about how to properly incorporate fruit, check with your registered dietitian or doctor who can walk you through portion information and timing of meals and snacks based on your individual medication requirements. 

Another important thing to remember is fiber comes packaged in fruit. Fiber in any form of fruit—canned, fresh, dried or frozen—can help slow down how quickly sugar is absorbed into your body and your body will absorb the sugar over a longer period of time.

The bottom line is this: In addition to being a delicious addition to any meal plan, fruit provides a tremendous amount of health and nutritional benefits that offset any sugar concerns. If eaten as part of a balanced, varied diet, fruit should be part of your healthy eating plan.