Ever heard of an orange juice tree?
Dug up a potato, only to find it skinless?
Seen a picture of people harvesting white rice?
In nature, we find unprocessed foods with starch and sugar in them also have a good amount of fiber:
- Grains in their whole form include the bran, full of fiber.
- Sweet fruits, packed with fructose, always come in a fibrous skin or have a hefty dose of fiber included in the package.
- Starchy vegetables, like potatoes and legumes, also bring fiber along for the ride.
The lessons about fiber and sugars in balance may help us determine why some green smoothies aren’t a good idea.
A World in Isolation
Nowhere in nature do we find fructose or glucose, both “monosaccharides” or simple sugars, all by themselves.
If we did, here’s what would happen:
- Free fructose or glucose would be absorbed immediately by the small intestine and shoot directly into the bloodstream.
- Any fructose that doesn’t get taken care of by the small intestine, which happens more frequently when fructose is in larger quantities or when exercising right after consumption, goes into the large intestine. There, it is fermented by colonic flora, producing gases. You know that feeling? I don’t think I need to give you very many guesses about what symptoms “gas in the colon” might cause.
- Excess fructose forms triglycerides and “lipid droplets” – yes, that’s fat.
- Both glucose and fructose can feed the bacteria in your gut…whether good guys or bad. (Reason no. 57 why staying on top of digestive probiotics is important!)
By the way, fructose absorption happens at an even higher rate when paired equally with glucose. The ratio of fructose to glucose in sucrose, aka white table sugar, is 1:1, a perfect balance.
Did you catch that? White sugar is formulated perfectly to go right into your bloodstream, schwoop! You know the feeling?
High fructose corn syrup, on the other hand, is 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The major difference between high fructose corn syrup and white sugar is that in sucrose, the fructose and glucose are bonded together in a disaccharide, which at least must be broken down before being absorbed into the bloodstream. Also, there’s obviously more fructose, which is a problem since fructose causes many more health problems than glucose, particularly in excess amounts.
Here’s a little list of some of my favorite sweet foods, as they’re “packaged” by nature:
- whole apples
You may not notice immediately, since these “unprocessed foods” don’t come with nutritional labels, but every one is high in fiber as well. The ideal ratio of sugars to fiber is from 1:1 up to 10:1, yet many processed foods are much, much higher. Why?
Although it’s actually pretty hard to mess up a strawberry, for example, current food processing standards for grains seem to be “strip the fiber” and “add sugar.” Since sugar says, “Eat more,” in our bodies, while fiber says, “Slow down,” this is a great marketing strategy to keep demand for food up, although not so great for human health. The ratio on most grain-based nutritional labels is upwards of 20:1 and worse.
What’s the Role of Fiber?
Fiber isn’t even digested, but it still plays an important role in eating – and digestion. There are a whole bunch of reasons it’s “part of the package” whenever starch or sugar shows up in nature:
- keeps your digestive tract working well
- lower cholesterol levels
- fights heart disease
- improves absorption of calcium and zinc
- helps you feel full
- regulates absorption of sugars
- stabilizes blood glucose levels (i.e. fights diabetes)
While simple sugars are trying to fly into the bloodstream at breakneck speeds, fiber acts as the crossing guard, slowing everybody down.
With the help of most of the food processing industry, Americans are seeing a massive “job force reduction” in the crossing guard position, so to speak:
“The average person should eat between 20-35 grams of fiber each day. Most Americans eat about half that amount. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that people with diabetes who ate 50 grams of fiber a day — particularly soluble fiber — were able to control their blood glucose better than those who ate far less.” (source)
The risk? Too much fructose or sucrose in one’s diet can lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and more.
Sugars without fiber to slow them down will accomplish that mess even faster, as well as toying with our brains about how much to eat, often compounding the problem even further. I’d say that’s about five good reasons to eat a largely unprocessed foods diet to stay in control of what you’re eating.
Get More Fiber, Less Sugar
WebMD‘s top sources of fiber include:
- Whole grains
- Brown rice
- Baked potato with skin
- Vegetables (especially crunchy ones, plus avocados, sweet potatoes)
Note that you don’t HAVE to eat grains or legumes to get sufficient fiber (or anything else for that matter). Veggies do a great job!
If you have to have your sweets, at least make sure you’re eating foods with adequate fiber in the same meal or during the day, as they will have a positive impact on all the other foods you eat.
The smoothie question is about balance too. For those smoothies that call for orange juice, which tastes great but is all sugar, plus a banana (high fructose fruit) plus more fruit plus maybe some honey, tempered hardly at all by the small amount of fiber in that one handful of spinach… I think you get the idea.
And at breakfast, eat the orange – skip the juice, which has its fiber stripped out in the juicing process (why I buy heavy pulp orange juice when I do grab some as a treat a few times a year).
This post was inspired by this most excellent treatise on the need for high school home economics by Dr. Robert Lustig, which begins:
“In Contra Costa County, Calif., a high school student juices six oranges to make eight ounces of juice, downs it in 12 seconds flat, and says, “I’m hungry, what’s for breakfast?” A second student cuts up six oranges, taking 15 minutes to eat five of them, and says, “I think I’m going to be sick, I couldn’t eat another bite.” These students are participating in a pilot program to bring the lessons of food to an otherwise unsuspecting population, our nation’s impoverished youth. A substantial percentage of these kids are obese, and some already have Type 2 diabetes. Most of these kids have never seen the inside of an orange.”
The best article on sugar: Is Sugar Toxic?