Last fall, I moved to a small town in Vermont after living in New York City for 15 years. I promptly adapted to the New England winter diet: hearty soups and stews, excellent sourdough from the local bakery, and Christmas cookies baked in a blessedly full-size oven. Pretty soon, my flannel-lined jeans were snug. So I signed up for a fitness and weight-loss app called Noom, and vowed to change my eating habits.
Besides providing you with a step counter and food and exercise trackers, Noom sets you up with a coach and a group to help you navigate the challenges of losing weight. In one such group chat, I mentioned that I was trying to snack on fruit instead of cheese and crackers. Suddenly, I found myself getting schooled by another member of the chat: Fruit was actually full of sugar and carbs, and that meant it wasn’t so healthy after all.
A lot of people seem to regard fruit with suspicion these days. If you Google “Is fruit…”, the top suggestion finishes the query with “bad for you.” Football star Tom Brady famously eschews it. (He’s never in his life had a strawberry!) Tim Ferriss recommends doing the same in his book The 4-Hour Body, and followers of the low-carb ketogenic diet also limit their intake.
At the same time, fruit is considered a “free” food on Weight Watchers and a “green” food on Noom, meaning that dieters can eat basically eat as much of it as they like. And swinging back around to more restrictive forms of dieting, some health nuts swear by juicing, juice cleanses and smoothies, and a whole tribe of fruitarians, whose diets consist almost entirely of fruit, boast about their vitality while running ultra-marathons.
That’s a lot of contradiction. And so I embarked on a quest to understand whether we really need to be watching our fruit consumption.
First, I called Samantha Rigoli, founder of Healthy to the Core, which provides nutrition education and consulting for adults and children. Rigoli has a master’s degree in public health, and is both a registered dietician and a certified nutrition dietician. I recounted my tale of being shamed for fruit-snacking. Did I really need to worry about eating a handful of strawberries?
“Fruit is super healthy,” she said. “It’s nutrient-dense, it has tons of antioxidants and vitamins and phytonutrients. Every bite is valuable.” She clarifies that, while it’s true that fruit can be higher in carbohydrates and natural sugars, its nutritional value means that it’s an entirely different kind of carb than “a cookie that’s calorie dense.”
That’s not to say that there is no sugar in fruit—it’s full of fructose. The difference between fruit and a cookie, or even whole fruit and juice, is that the fructose comes wrapped in a fiber package, which slows its absorption in the bloodstream. Rigoli said that anyone who is working really hard to lose weight might want to consult the glycemic index. Fruits with lower scores on the index, which raise blood sugar more slowly, include apples and berries. Tropical fruits like mango, banana, and watermelon are higher. To be clear, too much fruit can be a slight hindrance to aggressive or difficult weight loss—but it is absolutely part of a healthy diet otherwise.
Some dieters may feel still wary of eating a banana (approximately 100 calories) because they are keeping a daily calorie count, which is increasingly easy to do with apps like LoseIt and MyFitnessPal. But simply staying below a specific number does not necessarily guarantee weight loss or a healthy diet. “A calorie is not just a calorie,” says Rigoli. “One hundred calories of broccoli or 100 calories of a cookie will give you such widely different nutrients and affect your weight and your mood and your energy and your blood sugar and digestion so differently.”
In an article published in July of 2013 in The Journal of the American Medical Association, David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, makes a similar point about fructose. “Fructose in its primary natural form (whole fruit) is not associated with adverse effects,” he notes. What matters isn’t just how much fructose you eat, but the form in which fructose is delivered. Eating fruit, and the fiber and vitamins it contains, is associated with lower body weights and less risk of obesity-related illnesses.
So why is fruit getting a bad rap these days? Rigoli sees fruit confusion as the result of people’s general tendency to seek out overly simplified nutritional theories. The most common misconceptions, she says, are that all carbs and meat are bad and everything gluten-free is good. “And coconut,” Rigoli says. “People have become obsessed with it.” Carbs and sugar have emerged as the current nutritional villains. That makes it easy to look at a banana and frown at the calorie count and 27 grams of carbs, without recognizing that it also contains three grams of fiber, about 20% of your daily B-6 vitamin needs, and a splash of vitamin C. Plus, there’s just one ingredient in a banana: banana. Try to get that from a 100-calorie package of mini Oreos.
The reality is that there is no one food or way of eating that will act as a magical elixir for every person, according to a TEDx Talk delivered in Queensland by Niki Bezzant, a food and health writer who sits on the council of directors of the True Health Initiative, an organization committed to ending preventable chronic disease through diet and healthy lifestyles.
Bezzant explains that strict eating regimens, whether they come from food manufacturers hoping to sell gluten-free frozen pizzas or self-proclaimed diet gurus, are all about one thing: marketing. The anti-fruit brigade may tell you to cut back on citrus, but what they’re really peddling is a book or an energy bar or a jar of protein powder. Cutting out an entire category of food—especially when that food is a plant—is a dead giveaway that you’re looking at a gimmick, rather than a long-term, healthy change.
The truth is that “no one thing is killing us and no one thing is the answer to all our problems,” as Bezzant on stage in Queensland. “If you find yourself worrying about the sugar in [a] carrot, or in [a] cupcake for that matter, it might time to just relax and go outside and have a walk around in the sunshine.”
If you have any lingering doubts about eating fruit, Rigoli offers a few guidelines. Two to three portions a day is probably optimal for most people. If you’re particularly worried about sugar intake—because you’re working hard to lose weight or you are pre-diabetic—try apples, pears, berries and cherries, which are all lower in sugar and lower on the glycemic index than fruit like watermelon or pineapple. She also notes that apples actually stimulate appetite. To stay full longer, you may want to eat them with some fat and protein like nuts, or a moderate amount of cheese or nut butter.
Overall, however, she is unequivocally pro-fruit. “Fruit is amazing,” she said. “You should eat it every day.”