Is This Healthy Food Making You Fat?

Everyone knows an apple a day keeps the doctor away, so the fruit bowl seems an unlikely battleground in the world of healthy eating and weight loss.

But, there are certainly two schools of thought regarding fruit.

Some people undoubtedly believe that with fruit you get a free pass.

Basically, you can snack on fruit ad libitum because, well, it’s fruit, and fruit is a healthy whole food, right?

For others, fruit is a high carb food that shouldn’t be eaten, at least not in excess.

So what side wins?

While this can be a little confusing, you don’t need to worry, we’re going to clear this issue up for good today…

Guidelines usually lump fruits and vegetables together when recommending how many we should be eating each day.

Here in the UK the message is to get five-a-day.
fruit
While I encourage a recommendation like this, for many people it’s much easier to eat fruit than it is to eat vegetables.

And, since the recommendation doesn’t clarify how many of those portions should be fruit and how many should be vegetables, your diet can easily end up being a bit lopsided.

Can You Eat too Much Fruit?

The main issue with fruit is that it contains fructose, and this is why some recommend limiting the amount you eat.

However, far from being detrimental to health, studies actually show a higher fruit intake provides certain health benefits.

Health benefits of fruit

Aside from fruit being a great source of nutrients, fiber and antioxidants, one study also found a benefit on lipid profiles.

In the study, women were given a low calorie diet with 5% fructose from fruit, while the second group followed a low calorie diet with 15% fructose from fruit.

The researchers noted no differences in weight loss.

Also, in the group with the higher fruit intake, the LDL (bad) cholesterol decreased, and there was less oxidative stress.

Fructose in fruit

However as I’ve said, there is a lot of talk about avoiding fructose these days, and often fruit gets bundled in with this advice, too.

Any potential problem may be with excess calories more than the fructose content, though. In fact, a recent (2012) review concluded:

Free* fructose at high doses that provided excess calories modestly increased body weight, an effect that may be due to the extra calories rather than the fructose.

*fructose found in liquids like soft drinks.

Back in 2008, a study on fructose and fat was published in the Journal of Nutrition.

It received a lot of media attention because it claimed that a high intake of fructose stimulates the production of fat.

The researchers found that when fructose was consumed, the formation of fat (lipogenesis) was 2X greater than when fructose was absent.

The argument goes something like this:

  • Fruit contains fructose.
  • A study says fructose leads to fat gain.
  • So, if you want to lose fat, don’t eat fruit.

When it comes to nutrition, though, things are never that clearcut.

As a result of the media’s interpretation of these results, fruit got a complete bashing, when in fact the subjects didn’t even eat fruit.

Instead, they were given a huge dose of liquid fructose (75% fructose solution), or ‘free’ fructose.

Let me be clear, there is a massive difference in terms of how the body reacts to fructose bound up within the fruit, and that in a free form. MASSIVE DIFFERENCE!

There is evidence that when taken in liquid form (such as soft drinks or fruit juices), consumption of fructose is associated with higher energy intake, increased body weight, and the onset of metabolic syndrome.

The same can’t be said for the fructose within fruit.

“Ill effects noted with ‘free’ fructose should not be applied to fructose found naturally in fresh fruit.” - Click to Tweet

Fruit = nature’s soda?!

Still, the confusion about fructose found in drinks and that found in fruit remains.

I came across this article by Michael Lustgarten, PhD. His flawed logic makes me a little bit crazy!!

Consumption of HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is not good for health. But, I’d like to add a bit of perspective: the main sugar found in fruit is fructose…

One 20 oz. soda contains 240 calories and 65 grams of sugar. All of this sugar comes from HFCS, which is 55% fructose…

How much fructose is contained within fruit? When normalized to the same amount of calories as a 20 oz. soda, bananas contain 16.4 g of fructose; strawberries, 20.1 g; cherries, 20.8 g; blueberries, 21.2 g; oranges (navels), 21.6 g; peaches, 24.0 g; raisins, 24.0 g; pears 27.4 g; grapes, 28.6 g; apples, 32.0 g…

The amount of fructose found in fruit isn’t too far away from the amount found in calorie-matched soda

But wait a minute… if you’re about to reach for a soda since it really isn’t that different to fruit after all, let me stop you right there!

First up, a 20 ounce soda is a reasonable serving for most people.

But, Dr Lustgarten’s biggest mistake is that he tried to compare a soda with fresh fruit, as if they were like for like.

That just doesn’t work out in practice:

  • Bananas: 1 medium banana has 7.1 grams of fructose. To get the same amount of fructose as the 20 ounce can of soda you would need to eat 5 bananas.
  • Strawberries: 1 cup of strawberries has 4.1 grams of fructose. You would need 9 cups of strawberries to get the same dose of fructose as a 20 ounce soda.
  • Cherries: 1 cherry has 0.4 grams of fructose. You would need to eat 89 cherries to get the same dose of fructose as a 20 ounce soda.
  • Apples: 1 medium apple has 12.6 grams of fructose. You would need to eat almost 3 apples to get the same dose of fructose as a 20 ounce soda.

The point is, that just because your soda and your apple contain fructose, it doesn’t mean you can consume both interchangeably without consequence.

Clearly eating 5 bananas in one sitting would not be normal, or healthy. But one, no problem!

And, as I’ve already noted, free fructose is much more damaging to your health than that bound up within the fruit.

How Much Fruit Should You Eat?

Eating a few servings of fruit each day, in the context of an otherwise healthy diet and lifestyle, isn’t going to create metabolic dysfunction.

Just make sure that the balance of your diet overall is good.

You don’t want to have such a high consumption of fruit that is ends up displacing other healthy and necessary foods in your diet.

However, if you are already insulin resistant or obese, it is still wise to exercise caution with your fruit intake.

In this case, I suggest limiting your fruit intake to one portion each day, and completely avoiding fruit juices, and other fructose-laden drinks.

(Having said that, if your diet pretty much stinks already – virtually no plant-matter, low quality meats, liters of soft drinks, margarine, with a high grain product intake — eating too much fruit is the least of your worries.)

If you are active, or simply seeking to maintain your weight, fruit can easily remain a part of your diet.

Just remember to eat in moderation.

Just like you make a decision not to eat a full packet of cookies, you should think about portion control when it comes to fruit, too.

As a side note, eat as many vegetables as you like.

What Are the Best Fruits to Eat?

I don’t necessarily think we need to avoid specific fruits, but do make a effort to eat a wide variety.

Try to eat them when they are in season, so that they are fresher, tastier and contain more nutrients — and of course, they are more affordable.

And remember that juice from any fruit is higher on the glycemic index, because the fibre has been removed. I recommend avoiding fruit juice most of the time, even if you are a healthy weight.

Keep in mind, too, that dried fruit should only be eaten very occasionally, as it is an extremely concentrated source of sugar, and easy to overeat.

When Should You Eat Fruit?

One of the best ways to get your daily fruit in without causing huge spikes in your insulin levels, is to eat your fruit around the time you workout.

The sugar (glucose) in your blood stream is extracted into your cells much faster and more efficiently within 2 hours of a workout.

That means your body doesn’t need to secrete large amounts of insulin.

So if you are very conscious of this, eating fruit around your workouts is a good way to manage things.

Concluding Thoughts

  • Fruit is a good source of nutrients, fiber and antioxidants.
  • For most people, eliminating fruit from their diet is unnecessary. Fruit is always going to be a better option than processed, empty calorie foods.
  • However, it is possible to eat too much fruit, so don’t overdo it.
  • Aim for about 1-2 portions each day (and 5+ portions of vegetables).
  • Eating fruit around your workout time is a good strategy to optimize your fruit consumption.
  • Avoid drinking too many smoothies. These so-called ‘healthy’ drinks are one sure way to get a lot of fructose packed into your body in a very short amount of time.
  • Avoid fruit juice most of the time, and other heavily sweetened soft drinks.
  • Dried fruits are a very concentrated source of sugar; they should be kept to a bare minimum.

So, go ahead and have an apple a day, some berries, or a banana. As long as you’re not washing it down with a Coca Cola, it’s all good!

What are your thoughts, can you eat too much fruit?

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About Melanie
Melanie is a Registered Dietitian who started Dietriffic in March 2007. Her aim is to make good health attainable and sustainable, without guilt and torture, making her approach popular with those who desire a level-headed approach to good health. Have you got your copy of her free book yet?


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura @ Happy Sugar Habits June 17, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Melanie this is a great article. You completely hit the nail on the head I feel and provide a very balanced sensible view that should be better interpreted. I know a few that class a carton of juice or a smoothie as their 5-a-day and a super healthy choice and I do feel people need a little more education on this.

The only time I would restrict fruit would be if you were really trying to change your tastebuds to become more sensitive to fructose (if you previously feel you have strong cravings for it). Then you can just go by each day with a few portions of fruit after becoming less dependent on it. I’m glad this is where I now am now and I really appreciate fruit and try to keep the variety by switching regularly. I used to LOVE dried fruit (3 portions a day!) but I’ve steered clear of that now.

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Georgie mcvoy June 18, 2013 at 7:55 am

Fantastic post =) I find eating a few servings of fruit in the earlier parts of the day better as opposed to eating it later in the day.

Reply

Sloan June 22, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Very informative article. The part about fructose is very enlightening. I was convinced that fructose in any form is bad for you. But, you put that in a different light. I have a mid morning snack daily that consists of one banana. That one banana satisfies my hunger until lunch. Thanks for the good information!

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