What is fructose, and can fruit really make us gain weight?

Fructose is derived from fruit, which is supposedly healthy – so why is it linked to obesity? Science weighs in

table full of fruit
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Fruit is good for you, right? Stuffed full of vitamins and minerals, many different kinds of fruit are packed with antioxidants and dietary fibre. We're always encouraged to eat more fresh fruit, from berries on top of our breakfast to apples packed with our lunches. 

That's when we're not using the best blenders to whip up amazing fruit juices and smoothies. However, fruit is also a natural source of fructose, a type of simple sugar. Fructose, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, is often added in large quantities to sweeten processed foods and drinks. A new study from Weill Cornell Medicine Center found eating fructose in large quantities can alter the cells in our digestive system, leading to more weight gain and fat accumulation. 

So does that mean we should swerve fruit as the source of fructose? Not necessarily. Endochrinologist at Weill Cornell, Dr Marcus DaSilva Goncalves, said: "Fructose is nearly ubiquitous in modern diets, whether it comes from high-fructose corn syrup, table sugar, or from natural foods like fruit."

Healthy breakfast

(Image credit: Brooke Lark/Unsplash)

"Fructose itself is not harmful. It's a problem of overconsumption. Our bodies were not designed to eat as much of it as we do."

A piece of fruit is a ready-made portion size. One apple contains some fructose along with dietary fibre, which is great for our gut health, and several different antioxidants. Eating a piece of fruit as a snack will not result in an overdose of fructose: in fact, eating a piece of orchard fruit, such as an apple, before meals could reduce overeating due to its satiating fibre content.

The harm comes from the distilling of fructose into a syrup, and adding excess amounts to processed foods, so you can continue to eat fresh fruit without fear. To avoid the harmful effects of over-consuming fructose, swap your processed snacks and drinks out for natural alternatives.

Cutting out soda and swapping it for water is especially important. In one study, it was found swapping your sugary drinks for waters would lead to "a significant reduction in weight and waist circumference and an improvement in systolic blood pressure". 

The research found people were twice as likely to lose 5% of their body weight by drinking water and ditching the sodas, which are often extremely high in added fructose. Keep one of our best water bottles at your desk and in the gym, so you're reaching for the healthy stuff instead of sodas.

Matt Evans
Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and Channel Editor at Fit&Well. He's previously written for titles like Men's Health and Red Bull, and covers all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. 

Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen kickboxer and runner. His top fitness tip? Stretch.