If you're attuned to the latest health buzzwords, you're probably thinking a lot about sugar. On the one hand, it's the food demon du jour: A report released last month by the CDC reveals that a diet too high in sugary, processed foods can more than double your risk of heart disease—and that's just the latest in a slew of studies linking sweets to obesity, diabetes, cancer and more. The World Health Organization announced that we'd all be a whole lot better off if we limit calories from sugar to 5% of our total intake (down from the group's previous guideline of 10%), even calling out—to the horror of many—micro-sources of the sweet stuff, like ketchup.
Which begs the question: Are all sugars created equal? Certain health camps are presenting some controversial caveats. According to popular movements (like the If It Fits Your Macros ), if you get the right balance of protein and fat and stay within your allotted caloric intake, it doesn't matter whether your sugar comes from an orange or a bag of M&Ms—your body composition won't change.
"We're talking about two different end points," says John Berardi, Ph.D., founder of Precision Nutrition and a member Equinox's health and performance advisory board. "One is the number on the scale, how I look, and my lean-to-fat mass ratio. The other is the nutrients I consume, and the effect on my risk for things like metabolic problems, cancer, and inflammation."
The surprising truth is that by the time sugar's circulating in your bloodstream, it doesn't matter whether it comes from a Red Delicious or a marshmallow Peep. It's treated exactly the same way: With the release of insulin, the hormone in charge of collecting sugar from the blood and moving it along to your muscles, organs and fat stores—a necessary process for pretty much every function in the body.
But before sugar hits your veins, when it's still hanging out in your gut, the source of those carbs matters a lot. The fiber in fruits and vegetables optimize your metabolism by slowing the sugar's entry into the bloodstream. "With candy, it rushes in all at once, the insulin release is higher, and more sugar gets stuffed in fat stores," Berardi says.
When high blood sugar becomes chronic—that's when you can be classified as diabetic or pre-diabetic—fat burning starts to shut down, Berardi says, and your body's proteins start to gunk up with extra sugar, potentially leading to accelerated aging, hardening arteries, stiff muscle fascia and more. Is it technically possible to achieve chronically high blood sugar via too much citrus? Yes. But candy bars are a lot more efficient.