Why Is Fructose Bad For You?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Fructose

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

why fructose bad for youI don’t usually report on studies done in mice, but this study sheds light on a particularly puzzling question: Why is fructose bad for you?

The studies are clear-cut. High fructose consumption is associated with inflammation, obesity, non-alcoholic liver disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, increased LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and heart disease. Based on these associations, fructose appears to be deadly. Why would anyone want to consume it?

Yet fructose is found in virtually every fruit. In fact, fructose, also known as fruit sugar, was first isolated from fruits. Hence the name fructose. Humans have been eating fruits safely for thousands of years. Fruits are very good for us. That raises the question: “If fruits are good for us, how can fructose be bad for us?”.

An important clue can be found by looking at what the food industry has done to the American diet. Because fructose imparts a pleasurable, sweet taste to foods, the food industry keeps adding it to more and more foods. As a result, dietary intake of fructose has increased 100-fold over the past two centuries. It has reached the point where fructose now accounts for almost 10% of the caloric intake in the United States.

 

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

 

Let me expand the discussion by using a couple of graphics I developed for my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”  

There Are No Sugar Villains. There Are No Sugar Heroes:

why fructose bad for you sugar foodVirtually all sweeteners are primarily a mixture of fructose and glucose. The graphic on the left compares high fructose corn syrup (the current villain) with other “natural” sweeteners used in foods (our current heroes). High fructose corn syrup ranges from about 40% fructose to 55% fructose. The exact percentage depends on what kind of food product is being made with it. Honey and coconut sugar are about 45% fructose. Sucrose and grape juice concentrate are around 50% fructose. Apple juice concentrate is around 60% fructose, and agave sugar comes in at a whopping 80% fructose.

In other words, if fructose is the culprit that everyone makes it out to be, “healthy” sugars are no better than high fructose corn syrup. Simply substituting a “healthy” sugar for high fructose corn syrup is unlikely to provide any meaningful benefit.

 

Is It The Sugar, Or Is The Food?

why fructose bad for you fruitsThis graphic shows us what a nutrition label would look like on a medium apple. I am sure that label is a wake-up call for many of you. The amount of sugar and the percentage of fructose and glucose are about the same as in an 8-ounce soda sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. The same is true for virtually every other fruit you can think of.

Now let me share one more thing you won’t hear from what I refer to as “Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog” (You probably know the ones I am referring to). Virtually all the studies showing the bad effects of fructose consumption have been done with sodas and sugary junk foods. They haven’t been done with apples.

In fact, virtually every study looking at fruit and vegetable consumption has shown they are incredibly good for us. They lower inflammation and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. And, the more the better. One study found that the health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption topped out at around 10 servings a day.

With this background, you should now fully understand why the question “If fruits are good for us, how can fructose be bad for us?” is so perplexing.

My simplistic explanation has always been that whole foods like fruits have fiber, which slows the absorption of fructose from the intestine. Our bodies were designed to handle fructose in a safe manner when it enters the bloodstream slowly. Sodas and junk foods, on the other hand, have little to slow the absorption of fructose. When fructose enters the bloodstream rapidly, our “safe” metabolic pathways for handling it are overwhelmed, and it is forced into the pathways that are harmful. For example, the “excess” fructose is converted to fat by the liver, which causes inflammation, obesity, fatty liver disease, and triglyceride production.

This is, of course, simply my hypothesis for explaining the different effect of fructose in fruits and sodas. It is based on sound metabolic principles, but it is far from proven. That is why I found the current study (C. Jang et al, Cell Metabolism, 27: 351-361, 2018 ) so interesting. It provides a metabolic rationale for my hypothesis.

How Was The Study Done?

Mice were fed a 1:1 mixture of fructose and glucose at doses that approximated the ranges of typical human fructose consumption. The fructose was isotopically labeled so that fructose and its metabolites could be identified by LC-MS (liquid chromatography – mass spectrometry). After feeding the mice the labeled fructose, the investigator measured the amount of fructose and its metabolites in various organs and in the portal vein, which transports sugars from the intestine to the liver for additional metabolism before they enter the bloodstream.

 

Why Is Fructose Bad For You?

why fructose bad for you intestine liverThe first surprise was that most of the fructose was metabolized by the intestinal mucosal cells that line the small intestine rather than the liver. Previous reports had assumed that fructose was primarily metabolized by the liver because that was where most of the bad effects of fructose metabolism had been observed.

These investigators observed that fructose was primarily converted to glucose and small molecular weight metabolites by the intestinal mucosal cells before being released into the portal vein, where they were transported to the liver. However, there was a strong dose response effect.

  • At low fructose doses, 90% of fructose was metabolized by intestinal mucosal cells before being released to the liver.
  • At high fructose doses, only 70% of fructose was metabolized by intestinal mucosal cells.
  • That means at high fructose doses the amount of fructose reaching the liver unchanged increases from 10% to 30%. That is a 3-fold increase!

The authors concluded:

  • “Based on these findings, we propose that the small intestine shields the liver from fructose and that excessive doses of fructose overwhelm the small intestine, spilling over to the liver where they cause toxicity.”
  • “A key difference between the health effects of fiber-rich fruits (and perhaps even fiber-rich prepared foods) and juices/sodas is their rate of intestinal fructose release.”
  • “It is likely that the appearance rate of free fructose in the small intestine plays a critical role in dictating its metabolic fate. Like the lower doses in our experiments, a slower rate of fructose appearance will result in more complete intestinal clearance, whereas higher doses and faster rates result in fructose overflow to the liver.”

This study needs to be confirmed, and the mechanism may be entirely different in humans. However, whether the mechanism is the same in mice and humans is immaterial. We already know that fructose in sodas and junk foods exerts a very different effect on our health than fructose in fruits and other fiber-containing foods.

The Bottom Line

 

Previous studies have clearly shown that fructose in sodas and junk foods is bad for us, while fructose in fruits is good for us. A recent study in mice provides a metabolic explanation for this difference. The study found:

  • At low fructose doses, 90% of fructose was metabolized by intestinal mucosal cells before being released to the liver.
  • At high fructose doses, only 70% of fructose was metabolized by intestinal mucosal cells.
  • That means at high fructose doses the amount of fructose reaching the liver unchanged increases from 10% to 30%. That is a 3-fold increase!

The authors concluded:

  • “Based on these findings, we propose that the small intestine shields the liver from fructose and that excessive doses of fructose overwhelm the small intestine, spilling over to the liver where they cause toxicity.”
  • “A key difference between the health effects of fiber-rich fruits (and perhaps even fiber-rich prepared foods) and juices/sodas is their rate of intestinal fructose release.”
  • “It is likely that the appearance rate of free fructose in the small intestine plays a critical role in dictating its metabolic fate. Like the lower doses in our experiments, a slower rate of fructose appearance will result in more complete intestinal clearance, whereas higher doses and faster rates result in fructose overflow to the liver.”

This study needs to be confirmed, and the mechanism may be entirely different in humans. However, whether the mechanism is the same in mice and humans is immaterial. We already know that fructose in sodas and junk foods exerts a very different effect on our health than fructose in fruits and other fiber-containing foods.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

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Latest Article

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

For more details read the article above.

 

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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