A Fruitful Approach to Health

Photo: Thinkstock/cheche22

As a nation, we don’t eat enough fruit. Given our desire for sweet flavors and convenient, ready-to-eat food, you might assume we eat too much fruit, but fewer than one-third of U.S. adults consume at least two cups per day. The health benefits of fruit are legion — imagine a sweet burst of juicy flavor that helps control blood sugar, maintain fullness, regulate digestion, support clear skin and reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

But wait, doesn’t fruit have too much sugar?

This is a common question, and one that makes sense given the push to reduce our sugar and carbohydrate intake with popular diet programs. Partially this is a consequence of our reliance on reductionism, where the health impact of food is reduced to its component parts. In this line of reasoning, the sugars and carbs in fruit are to be avoided like added sugar in sodas or refined carbs in breakfast cereals. But as the research consistently shows, fruit does not impair health — it promotes it.  Here are a few reasons why:

  • Fruit is packed with fiber, slowing down digestion and keeping blood sugar levels from spiking, as well as promoting digestive health and feeding beneficial bacteria in our microbiome.
  • Fruit has multitudes of nutrients, some of which are essential to our health and others that promote optimal immune, cellular and organ function, from your kidneys to your brain. The antioxidants and phytonutrients in fruit also provide the color and complex flavors we love.

What Does the Research Say?

As with all things food, it is difficult to parse the health impact of one specific nutrient or food group since we eat a wide variety of foods and it may take decades to see an impact on chronic disease. However, here are some of the results from studies on fruit:

  • The health impact of fruit often is combined with vegetables, as in a systematic review of 95 studies published this year in the International Journal of Epidemiology, finding that people who eat more fruits and vegetables live longer and have lower rates of heart disease and cancer.
  • Eating fruit every day decreases the risk of heart disease and stroke by 40 percent according to a 2014 European Heart Journal study. In addition, those who ate the most fruit had the lowest risk.
  • According to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, people consuming at least two cups of fruit per day are more likely to have a healthy weight.
  • The impact of fruit intake on diabetes risk is a bit more convoluted. Some studies show improved blood sugar control and reduced risk, while others find no connection between fruit intake and diabetes. We need more research to have a clear picture for this specific disease.

The Take Away

Here’s how to ensure that you get the most from these natural bundles of healthful sweetness:

  • Eat lots of colors. Variety ensures you consume the breadth of nutrients available from fruit. Color is related to the bioactive compounds that benefit our health.
  • Eat fruit every day, at least. Aim for two cups per day.
  • Leave fruit out on the counter. We are visual creatures, so engineer your environment to cue to you to eat healthfully.
  • Eat your food, don’t drink it. Juicing concentrates the sugar and removes or at least breaks down the fiber, resulting in potential blood sugar spikes. Small amounts of juice can be healthy for some people if you don’t have blood sugar control problems and it fits into your overall eating plan.
  • Turn to fruit for that sweet taste you crave. If you are used to ice cream, cake and cookies as your treats, this may take some getting used to, but fruit can be a dessert that satisfies the taste buds, the stomach and the mind.
  • Appreciate the perfect snack food. Fruits require no cooking and many have a built-in package to keep them fresh while on the go.
Jason Mousel

Jason Mousel, MS, RD, has a master’s degree in nutritional science from San Jose State University. He is a clinical dietitian at Sequoia Hospital, provides nutrition counseling at the San Francisco Free Clinic and is an instructor at San Francisco State University in the holistic health department. In his free time, he enjoys cooking, hiking, meditation and walking on the beach with his dog. Connect with him on his website.