“People who are obese or have heart conditions should limit their fruit to one portion a day, along with four portions of vegetables. You’d still have plenty of antioxidants, but you’d bring your fructose levels and calories down.” Dr. Carel Le Roux
“… many health authorities recommend eating [fruit] as part of a balanced and healthy diet… However, in clinical experience over 30 years, we find that eating fruit is extremely harmful for most people.” Dr. Lawrence Wilson
These are just a few of the gems floating around on the internet regarding the idea that fruit should be limited, contributes to obesity (and apparently heart disease too!) and is downright bad for your health. When did bananas become a taboo food? Is there any actual evidence to support the notion that fruit is an inferior food and may do more harm than good?
Long before Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide made the subtle food group switch from “Fruit and Vegetables” to “Vegetables and Fruit”, there has been anti-fruit rhetoric – from cultures where women were not allowed to eat red fruit, bananas were deemed dangerous during pregnancy, and people needed to avoid specific fruits to treat a host of maladies (1). But with the advent of low-carb diets, the anti-fruit movement has really picked up steam. What’s the evidence though?
The Arguments Against Fruit
The chief argument in the rally against fruit seems to be its fructose content. Yes, fruit contains fructose, sometimes in excess of glucose like in pears, apples and clingstone peaches. Yes, high fructose intakes have been linked to obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and a host of other issues (2). But is fruit to blame?
When we look closer, the most significant contributors to fructose intake are sugar-sweetened beverages (30.1%) and grain products (21.5%), which includes cakes, pies, sugary cereals, etc. (3). Fruit or fruit juices contribute ~ 20% of total fructose intake; though the data does not differentiate between whole fruits and fruit juices, we doubt the majority of this 20% is from whole apples or strawberries!
Where the argument does have some traction is calories. Many argue that because fruit contains a decent number of calories, it can contribute to weight gain – which is absolutely true. One medium banana contains 105 calories, one medium apple 72 calories, and ½ cup of blueberries 44 calories – but they all also contain fibre (which helps you feel full), vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (4). Over 30% of adults are obese in the US, yet as of 2009 only 32.5% of adults consumed fruit two or more times per day (5). There are obvious misconceptions that a) people are gorging on whole fruits, and b) eating tons of fruit is what is making everyone gain weight!
Making a Case For Fruit
To date, we have not been able to find ANY evidence in the literature that eating whole fruits increases risk of obesity, sabotages weight loss attempts or is “extremely harmful” in any other way. Just the opposite in fact! In two recent systematic reviews, both sets of authors conclude that strong evidence supports an inverse relationship between fruit consumption and obesity, and there is more than likely a protective role of fruit intake in the prevention of adult weight gain rather than any harm (6,7).
Likewise, higher fruit intake is associated with reduced risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and even depression (8-11). Interestingly, diabetes risk, where fruit is often vilified for its blood glucose-raising effect, is lower when fruit intake is higher (12)!
No Baloney’s advice. Eat fruit if you like it! And if you don’t like it, try to eat it anyway! So, why are anti-fruit beliefs so common? Some foods seem to have an undeserved bad reputation. When Oakes had participants rate the same 22 foods in terms of their perceived weight-gain potential and hunger satisfaction, there were some interesting results (13). Often the perception of weight gain had nothing to do with actual nutrient content. For instance, bananas were ranked in weight-gain potential similar to grape juice and bagels! It’s time to save the banana’s bad reputation!
It is important to note that associations between disease risk and fruit intake alone are typically weaker than the combination of veggies and fruit, or even veggies alone. When it comes to weight loss and disease reduction, veggies really should be your go-to, hence the food group name of “Vegetables and Fruit.” While there is no need to live in fear of fruit, it is certainly not an eat-all-you-want deal. If you are trying to lose weight, it is wise to limit yourself to 3 -4 servings of fruit per day and load up on veggies.
Choose whole, unprocessed fruits more often than fruit juice or dried fruit (particularly sweetened dried fruit, like blueberries and cranberries). And don’t think the banana bread you eat has the same benefits as a banana! Adding fruits (mashed bananas, apple sauce) is a great strategy to reduce fat and sugar in baked goods, but they are still baked goods!
Other fruit-based rumours to debunk:
- You should never eat fruit on an empty stomach. Totally bogus – here’s a great article on why.
- All fruit is very high glycemic index. With loads of fibre, most fruits are actually relatively low on the GI scale.
- Meyer-Rochow VB. Food taboos: their origins and purposes. J Ethnobiol Ethnomed 2009; 5:18.
- Tappy L, Le KA. Metabolic effects of fructose and the worldwide increase in obesity. Physiol Rev 2010; 80:23-46.
- Vos MB, et al. Dietary fructose consumption among US children and adults: the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Medscape J Med 2008; 10:160.
- Canadian Nutrient File. Health Canada, 2010.
- Centers for Disease Control. State-Specific Trends in Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Among Adults — United States, 2000—2009. MMWR 2010; 59(35);1125-1130.
- Alinia S, et al. The potential association between fruit intake and body weight–a review. Obes Rev 2009; 10:639-47.
- Fogelholm M, et al. Dietary macronutrients and food consumption as determinants of long-term weight change in adult populations: a systematic literature review. Food Nutr Res 2012; 56 [epub ahead of print].
- Boffetta P, et al. Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). J Natl Cancer Inst 2010; 102:529-37.
- Soerjomataram I, et al. Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables and future cancer incidence in selected European countries. Eur J Cancer 2010; 46:2563-80.
- Carlsson AC, et al. Seven modifiable lifestyle factors predict reduced risk for ischemic cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality regardless of body mass index: A cohort study. Int J Cardiol 2012; [epub ahead of print].
- Payne ME, et al. Fruit, vegetable, and antioxidant intakes are lower in older adults with depression. J Acad Nutr Diet 2012; 112:2022-7.
- Cooper AJ, et al. A prospective study of the association between quantity and variety of fruit and vegetable intake and incident type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2012; 35:1293-300.
- Oakes ME. Filling yet fattening: stereotypical beliefs about the weight gain potential and satiation of foods. Appetite 2006; ;46:224-33.