Healthy Eating for Your Active Lifestyle

We are all aware of the concern about a diet high in sugar and its negative impact on health. As a result, there are many warnings to cut back on processed and packaged foods with added sugar. But are natural and added sugar different? Can you eat too much naturally occurring sugar from foods such as fruit, vegetables and dairy?

Can I Eat Too Much Naturally Occurring Sugar?

What is naturally occurring sugar?

Naturally occurring sugar is sugar that has not been added to a food; it is a natural part of it. Foods that have naturally occurring sugar include the following:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Milk
  • Plain yogurt

Honey, agave and raw coconut sugar are not included in this list. While these sugars all come from natural sources, we only eat them when they are added to other foods, for example, tea with honey or baking that uses agave. These more natural sweeteners may have nutrients such as iron or magnesium. However, the amount in one teaspoon is too small to offer any nutritional benefit. Unless the sugar is actually a part of the whole food, consider it added.

Is naturally occurring sugar different from added sugar?

In short, sugar is sugar. Our bodies can’t tell the difference between sugar that is naturally occurring and sugar that is added. So why not cut back on natural sugar as well as added sugar?

There are two important reasons:

  1. Our bodies need sugar – The brain is fueled by glucose, one of the simplest forms of sugar. Carbohydrates are made up of many sugars strung together and these provide the fast energy source that is important before exercise. Eliminating all sugar in the diet would result in a groggy mind and low energy, not to mention a bad mood.
  2. Whole foods provide more than just sugar – Foods that have naturally occurring sugar have many other important components. Avoiding fruit because of the sugar eliminates an important source of fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Banishing all dairy foods because of the natural sugar (lactose) deprives you of a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D and other important vitamins and minerals.

As well, because of components such as fibre and protein, your body absorbs the sugar in whole foods more slowly, which helps keep blood sugar levels in check.

Can I eat too much naturally occurring sugar?

There are many concerns with Western diets, but eating too much naturally occurring sugar isn’t one of them. It would be difficult to eat too much naturally occurring sugar because:

  • Naturally occurring sugar is self-limiting – While it is very easy to consume large amounts of added sugar by drinking pop, it’s difficult to consume large amounts of naturally occurring sugar by eating apples. This is because the fibre and other components of apples fill us up and prevent us from eating too much. The protein and other components of milk have a similar effect. This makes it more difficult to drink four cups of milk than one can of pop. However, one can of pop contains the same amount of sugar as four cups of milk.
  • The whole diet – If your day is balanced with vegetables and fruit, grains, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives, it is unlikely that you will get too much naturally occurring sugar from fruit and vegetables, milk and plain yogurt. You would have to eliminate other important foods in order to do so. This would leave you with bigger worries than the amount of sugar you are eating.

Remember whole foods

Often, when it comes to nutrition, we focus on a specific nutrient or food component. This has led to the addition of protein to foods that don’t naturally have protein or taking fat out of foods that naturally have fat. However, focusing on individual nutrients ignores the whole food. Food is a sum of all its parts and this is important to consider when thinking about naturally occurring sugar. Consider the benefits of the whole food, with less focus on individual nutrients, to promote a balanced and enjoyable diet.

Kristina Isaac

Registered Dietitian

Kristina (BSc, RD) is a registered dietitian and nutrition educator at Alberta Milk.
Through programs, presentations and writing, she enjoys finding creative, fun and simple ways to communicate the science of nutrition.

Article posted on June 21, 2016

Active Tip

For flexibility training, relax as you hold a stretch. Do not bounce while stretching. Hold stretches for at least 15-30 seconds. Recent research suggests that four sets of 15-20 seconds per stretch will result in optimum gains.