Guest article by Sam Hadadi
For years and years, we were told that fat was the enemy.
Cheese, cream, full fat milk, butter and even coconut oil were pushed aside, left to go dusty on supermarket shelves, as they were demonised and blamed for the ever-growing obesity crisis.
Ditch the fat to lose weight, we were told, and, happily, we did just that. Gone was the red meat, the full-fat yoghurt, the delicious goodness from our shopping trolleys. Instead, our baskets started brimming with overly-processed, shop-bought foods and products labeled “low-fat”.
Of course, in recent years, we’ve come to know the truth. Hazel Wallace wrote such an article for us1. But due to the low-fat craze – as well as our ever-growing sweet tooth – fructose, a carbohydrate stemming from the humble fruit and veg, has found its way into our diets.
Worryingly, high-fructose corn syrup (found in many of your favourite soft drinks and packaged baked goods) makes up around 10 per cent of an American’s calorific intake. In fact, shift the bar to male adolescents, and you’ll find that they get around 15 to 23 per cent of their calories from fructose - three to four times more than the maximum levels recommended by the American Heart Association.
So, where’s the danger in all this? Surely a syrup originating from fruit and veg can’t be all that bad for us, right?
Shockingly, a recent study at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois found that when compared to glucose, fructose can lead to “significant” weight gain, physical inactivity and body fat.
The paper said: "Fructose decreases physical activity and increases body fat…” while Catarina Rendeiro, a lead author on the study, added: "the link between increases in sugar intake, particularly fructose, and the rising obesity epidemic has been debated for many years with no clear conclusions.
“The reality is that people are not only consuming more fructose through their diets, but also consuming more calories in general.
"One of the key questions is whether an increase in fructose intake contributes to obesity in the absence of excessive calorie intake."
The study lasted for just over two months, with researchers analysing two groups of mice. One group was fed a diet in which 18 per cent of the calories came from fructose, while the other was fed 18 per cent from glucose. Both groups consumed the recommended calorie allowance each day.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fructose-fed mice had a significantly increased body weight, liver mass and fat mass in comparison to the glucose-fed mice.
In fact, the researchers also found that not only were the fructose-fed mice gaining weight, but they were also less active. That means that not only would you pack on the pounds, but you’d also be less inclined to hit the gym to work it off, too.
"We don't know why animals move less when in the fructose diet," said Rhodes. "However, we estimated that the reduction in physical activity could account for most of the weight gain."
"Biochemical factors could also come into play in how the mice respond to the high fructose diet," added Jonathan Mun, another author on the study. "We know that contrary to glucose, fructose bypasses certain metabolic steps that result in an increase in fat formation, especially in adipose tissue and liver."
Rhodes concluded: “Our study suggests that such levels of fructose can indeed play a role in weight gain, favour fat deposition, and also contribute to physical inactivity. Given the dramatic increase in obesity among young people and the severe negative effects that this can have on health throughout one's life, it is important to consider what foods are providing our calories."
While we still don’t know exactly why fructose has such a damaging effect on our bodies, the study raises a cautionary tale – however much you may be counting the calories, high levels of fructose will instantly see you pile on the pounds.
Given all the negative health risks that comes with added fructose, it’s shocking to consider just how many foods and drinks contain the nasty stuff. There are also many delicious and nutritious foods that naturally contain fructose, such as bananas, kiwis, pineapples and raspberries.
The foods you want to avoid are the ones with added high fructose corn syrup – a type of sweetener you’ll find in many pre-packaged or shop-bought favourites. Food companies often turn to this because it’s so much sweeter than glucose, meaning their products can be tastier and more addictive to eat.
However, in spite of the obvious health risks, a recent2 EU ruling means that sweetened products can be labelled as “healthy” if companies replace more than 30% of the glucose and sucrose they contain with fructose.
Scary, isn’t it? Many of the products marketed as “healthy” can contribute to obesity, and cause us to lead sedentary, inactive lives.
If you want to avoid this – and, really, why wouldn’t you – then be wary of foods including:
So, if you want to avoid piling on unnecessary pounds, what do you do? And how can you avoid high fructose corn syrup?
Here at Lucy Bee, we always recommend following a diet rich in fresh foods and organic wherever possible. This is a great way of avoiding the nasty stuff passing your lips, plus you’ll be able to taste foods and natural sweetness even better.
It’s also a good idea to start reading and studying labels and ingredients when you’re out and about in the supermarket – some foods labelled as wholesome and good for you aren’t always so friendly!
Avoiding chemicals and processed ingredients doesn’t need to be tricky. It can be as simple as eating more fresh fruit and veg, fill up on grass-fed meat or seafood, and go nuts for your, well, nuts, legumes and good fats, such as Lucy Bee.
If you want to sweeten your food, then try to cook or bake everything from scratch. Our handy guide3 to sugar alternatives is a great way of helping you to find the healthiest and best way to eat the sweet stuff.
The above story is based on materials4 provided by Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology5.
Catarina Rendeiro, Ashley M. Masnik, Jonathan G. Mun, Kristy Du, Diana Clark, Ryan N. Dilger, Anna C. Dilger, Justin S. Rhodes. Fructose decreases physical activity and increases body fat without affecting hippocampal neurogenesis and learning relative to an isocaloric glucose diet. Scientific Reports, 2015; 5: 9589 DOI: 10.1038/srep095896
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.