The Carbohydrate Debate: Is Fruit Always the "Best" Choice?
Ah, the infamous debate of whether or not fruit is a “better” source of sugar than, lets say, an equivalent serving of candy. This is an argument that will probably always have a presence in the fitness industry and among the general population, but my goal today is to at least clarify some of the myths and misunderstandings that stand behind these claims.
So what are we even talking about here?
Well, in our journey to bettering our health or achieve sustainable weight loss: claims are often made that certain foods are “bad” and certain foods are “good” (the really bold claims will argue that quantity doesn’t matter as long as the food is deemed “healthy”).
So this means that there are health advocates, fitness gurus, and even some doctors that are spitting advice that basically say that certain sources of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are better than others. For example, and what we are discussing today: that carbohydrates from fruit are better than carbohydrates from.. well... literally anything else that is sweet but not fruit (candy, chocolate, etc).
Well… is it True?
Yes but no. Best answer ever, right?
It simply depends on what we’re talking about. Are we discussing whether or not one carbohydrate is more “nutritionally dense” than others? Are we trying to argue that one carbohydrate source is better than another for weight loss? Both of the answers to these questions will vary, but the biggest takeaway I’d want you as the reader to understand is that no food should be considered bad, rather, more “appropriate” in certain circumstances and for certain individuals.
So let us first tackle a subtopic that is generally the source of mass confusion in conversation about nutrition.
Macros vs. Micros
When we state the term “nutrient,” it is important to clarify what “nutrient” we are talking about.
A “macronutrient” is strictly classifying calorie sources as proteins, carbohydrates, or fats. These nutrients are what help us determine the total caloric value of food. Carbohydrates and proteins have 4 calories per gram, and fats hold 9 calories per gram. So, for example, carbohydrates from a banana hold the same amount of calories as an equivalent serving of carbohydrates from candy. The TOTAL calories may differ, especially if the candy holds any amount of fat or protein (while a banana holds no fat and a VERY small amount of protein per serving), but the calories from the carbs in both sources of food will be exactly the same.
“Micronutrient-content” describes the vitamins and minerals that are found within these macronutrients, and these are incredibly important for overall health. So this means that one source of carbohydrates could offer a completely different micronutrient profile than another source. This is why we sometimes see food sources labeled as “nutrient-dense.” That just means that the micronutrient content is considered high. So if we were to look at a banana and banana-flavored candy, it is a no-brainer to conclude that the banana will be much more “micronutrient-dense.”
Understanding the difference between these two terms will help us better answer the questions asked in the beginning of this article. We know that all carbohydrates hold the same amount of calories, but we must also acknowledge that certain carbohydrate sources have more micronutrient content than others. So does that mean that one carbohydrate is better than the other?
Again… it depends. Have you been eating strictly processed junk and are deficient in some micronutrients (or you just feel like complete garbage? Then choosing those more micronutrient-dense foods may help YOU feel better and improve your overall health.
But what if our goal is weight loss? Will you lose more weight if you eat only fruit and no candy?
IT DEPENDS… on how many total calories you are taking in. So if you are eating too many calories via fruit intake, you will gain weight. If you eat less calories via candy, you will lose weight.
As discussed previously, we determined that the carbohydrates from fruit hold the SAME amount of calories as the equivalent amount of carbohydrates that are sourced from candy. It doesn't matter where the carbs come from. When discussing weight loss, our #1 focus and priority is quantity. One thing that can be important to recognize when distinguishing between carbohydrate sources in an effort to lose weight is satiety. Fruit does contain fiber, and that can fill us up a tad more than fiber-less non-fruit sources, but if our appetite is high or our cravings are stronger than ever, this argument may not hold much weight.
The Big Takeaway
Unless you hate or are allergic to a certain food source, do not feel the need to eliminate it. When we discuss weight loss and overall reduction in calories, the biggest thing we want to focus on is picking foods that we enjoy, can eat in moderation, and ultimately help us find a balance in both health and happiness. That is what will bring you the results you want, not choosing a fruit salad over a scoop of ice cream. All carbs hold the same amount of calories per gram, but not all carbs have the same micronutrient profile. You may “feel better” if you choose to eat more fruit than candy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will lose weight unless you are monitoring how many total calories you are taking in. It all comes down to those same questions we began this article with: what are we trying to do with these carbohydrates sources?