Fruit has come off the menu for many in the rush to avoid sugar but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, advise the authors of a new study exploring the relationship between nutrition and obesity.
How we consume sugar does matter, the researchers from Deakin University said.
The World Health Organisation recommends no more than six to 12 teaspoons of added sugar a day and most of us consume much more than that. Consider that one tablespoon of tomato sauce contains about 4 grams (about 1 teaspoon) of added sugar. A single can of soft drink contains up to 40 grams (about 10 teaspoons) of free sugars.
But eating fruit does not make us fat, the researchers assure, in fact if you eat it regularly, you are about 10 per cent less likely to be obese.
Get your sweet hit from other sources however – fruit drinks, soft drinks, chips or chocolate – and your likelihood of obesity is about 12 per cent higher.
These are the findings of the study of 4908 Australian adults, published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Using a new technique combining prior knowledge of the relationship between nutrition and health outcomes as well as current Australian Health Survey data on the weight and eating patterns of participants, they were able to come up with a “a better predictor”, says lead author Dr Katherine Livingstone.
“Dietary energy density, fibre density and fat intake were selected as response variables. These nutrients were selected on the basis of evidence from the WHO report on prevention of chronic disease, and relevant literature that suggests that DED (dietary energy density), fibre density and sugar intakes are strongly associated with obesity risk.”
They looked at the correlation between dietary patterns (based on 48 food groups), the three response variables and prevalence of obesity.
Those with a diet rich in natural sugars – including apples, pears, tropical fruits, carrots, milk and brassica vegetables – were significantly less likely to be overweight.
“Sugars can be found in things that are good and things that are bad,” explained Livingstone, of Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition. “It’s the matrix or structure of the food that matters.”
She added: “Fruit is high in fibre, potassium and vitamins.”
While consumption of foods with naturally occurring sugars and fibre – like fruits – were considered highly influential in the outcomes, those participants were also less likely to consume non-whole-grain bread, high energy-containing beverages and snacks, as well as processed meat.
“It’s an example of how the whole diet influences health,” Livingstone said.
On the other hand, a higher likelihood of obesity was related to higher consumption of high-sugar and high-fat foods and beverages and lower consumption of vegetables, wine, whole-grain bread and non-whole-grain cereals.
“Our main findings are that a DP (dietary pattern) characterised by low DED, high fibre density and high sugar intakes (from fruits) was associated with lower prevalence of overweight or obesity, whereas a DP with low fibre density and high sugar intake (from chocolate and fruit drinks) was associated with higher prevalence of overweight or obesity.”
The study highlights “a critical public health message” the authors say.
“Although natural and added sugars are chemically comparable, they may have opposing influences on obesity prevalence because of the influence of the surrounding food matrix.”
Livingstone says that the study is a reminder that demonising sugar or looking at any nutrient in isolation is unhelpful.
“We don’t mean to say that sugar is evil,” she says, although “a block of chocolate is not nearly as good for your health”.
“It’s all about enjoying a diet rich in fruit and vegetables.”