Why Fruit Is Not A Freebie
We’ve been told time and time again that whether we want to lose weight or simply improve our health, we’ve got to eat more fruits and vegetables. The phrase is so often repeated that it’s almost lost its meaning. So a healthy eating plan must be a no-brainer, right? Steer clear of the junk food, and you can have a free-for-all with everything in the fruit and veggie category? But, of course, it’s not so simple. While a diet that includes plenty of fruit, veggies and lean protein sources is certainly a good thing, it’s always important to consider the role that sugar plays in our food. So with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at fruit in particular.
The Two “F” Words: Fruits come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, and serve up a wide offering of vitamins, minerals and enzymes. But let’s focus on two major components of fruit – the two F’s: Fiber and Fructose.
Fiber is, of course, one of the reasons fruit holds such great nutritional value. I’ve often said that fiber can be your best friend when it comes to weight loss: It helps slow down digestion, so you can avoid the spikes in blood sugar which can lead to energy crashes and weight gain. And it helps you feel fuller longer, making it easier to avoid unhealthy cravings and the impulse to overeat.
Fiber can even help you to absorb fewer calories by escorting them out of your digestive system before those calories can be transformed into fat. That’s why some diet plans consider high-fiber foods to be “freebies” – things you can eat in unlimited amounts because their high-fiber, low-calorie content won’t lead to weight gain. If you’re on a diet plan that tracks nutritional points, for example, these “freebies” might fall into the 0 point category. This is certainly true of many veggies, especially of the dark green, leafy variety. There’s no reason to practice portion control when it comes to kale.
Fruit, on the other hand, can be a trickier matter. That’s where that other “F” – fructose – comes into play. Don’t get me wrong – in the spectrum of unhealthy foods, fruit is still relatively innocent. But if fruit were to have a dark side, fructose is it. Here’s why:
- Sugar is as sugar does. There’s no denying that many fruits are high in sugar. It’s a natural source of sugar, of course, but foods like bananas can still pack a caloric punch. Dr. Robert Lustig – a pediatric endocrinologist at UC San Francisco known for his popular anti-sugar lectures online – calls sugar an “enabler” because it tricks the system into thinking it’s not satisfied and needs more. That’s because sugar intake creates a surge in insulin, and the higher your insulin, the hungrier you get. There’s also a hormone in the stomach called ghrelin, which is responsible for letting your brain know that you are hungry. Food suppresses ghrelin, so your brain gets the message that the problem has been handled. Sugar, however, has the opposite effect.
- Do the meal math. Take a look at these numbers. The American Heart Association recommends that women eat less than 26 grams of sugar per day. Meanwhile, the USDA recommends that we eat two servings of fruit a day. But if you’re not careful, just those two servings of fruit could put you past your recommended sugar intake for the day! Another way of breaking down the numbers: If you’re trying to limit your caloric intake to 1800 calories a day, about 40 percent of those calories should come from carbohydrates. But an average apple contains 100 calories and 27 grams of carbohydrates, while a banana is around 115 calories and 30 grams of carbohydrates. So if you eat two bananas and one apple, you’ve already consumed half your allotted carbs for the day!
- Why fructose can be our foe: A 2010 study at Princeton University on the impact of fructose found that rats with a high fructose intake gained weight and bodyfat, concluding that high amounts of fructose may contribute to obesity. When we eat glucose (the most common simple sugar that’s found in starches) it becomes a source of energy for your brain and muscles. Excess amounts are processed by insulin and metabolized by every cell in the body. Fructose, on the other hand, is only processed by your liver, which stores excess fructose as fat.
- Think about your drink. Liquid calories are often the most dangerous, especially when it comes to sugary drinks. That’s because liquid sugars hit our liver even faster than solid foods – and the faster fructose hits our liver, the higher the chances that the liver will convert it to fat. That’s why sodas containing high fructose corn syrup (there’s that F-word again!) are to be avoided at all costs. But even freshly-squeezed fruit juice can wreak havoc on our blood sugar because of its high Glycemic Index (a system that calculates foods’ effect on our blood sugar). So while orange juice is a great source of Vitamin C, it’s completely stripped of the fiber found in whole oranges, which means when we drink it, a blood sugar spike is right around the corner.
So that’s the bad news. But before you start avoiding apples and purging those pears, let’s take a balanced look at the fruit issue. After all, it’s much more than a source of the “Two F’s” we covered above. Fresh fruit gives us a healthy does of antioxidants, which can lower blood pressure, fight disease and, studies suggest, even work on a DNA level to help aid weight loss. They can be a mega source of phytochemicals, which may help combat the carcinogens that cause certain types of cancer. Grapes contain the cancer-protecting flavonoid anthocyanidin, while apples are a good source of immune-boosting quercetin and berries contain cancer-battling ellagic acid.
The bottom line is that with fruit, like most good things in life, we’ve got to strike a balance. So if it seems like I’ve spent a lot of time convincing you that fruit is evil, only to turn around and call it a life-saver, let’s try and avoid the extremes. While there are far worse threats than our health than the natural sugar found in fruit, I also don’t advise that you binge on bananas anytime soon. The goal is to stick to fruits that are both relatively low in sugar AND high in fiber.
Here’s a breakdown of some favorite fruits, comparing the grams of sugar in a one-cup serving, versus the fiber content:
Blackberries 7g (7.6g of fiber)
Strawberries 7g (3.3g of fiber)
Apples 13g (4g of fiber)
Pineapple 16g (2.3g of fiber)
Oranges 17g (3g of fiber)
Bananas 18g (3g of fiber)
Grapes 23g (.9g of fiber)
As you can see, blackberries are a clear winner, while grapes and bananas should be eaten in smaller doses, and apples are a nice middle-of-the-road fruit. So try loading up your protein shakes with frozen berries (as opposed to pineapples). Sprinkle fresh berries on Greek yogurt for a dollop of sweetness. And whenever possible, choose whole fruit over the sugary juiced version. Because when you find the perfect balance of fruits that fit your lifestyle and nutritional needs, life really can be sweet. (Just not too sweet.)