What’s the deal with fruit? Is it as good for us as it is claimed? Well yes – and no…
As always, it depends on the individual’s metabolic health.
Recommended guidelines suggest that we eat 5 a day of fruit and veg – and more recently this has been upped to 10 a day – but given the choice, most people take this as a green light on fruit consumption whilst failing to increase their vegetable intake. Soon after the guidelines suggested the increase I read a couple of “reports” where journalists recounted their efforts to include this amount into their daily food intake.
Needless to say, they concentrated on upping their fruit intake, mostly ignoring the advice about vegetables. This seems to be a common theme amongst people – and I see it a lot with clients who are trying to increase their intake but end up juicing and making fruit smoothies rather than increasing more fibrous vegetables.
Whilst fruit can offer beneficial nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, it is also known as “nature’s candy” – and for good reason. Fruit is high in sugar known as fructose. Fructose can only be metabolised by the liver, and is then stored either as liver glycogen (to be broken down into glucose for energy at a later stage) or stored as triglycerides (fat), also for later energy use. Unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate certain hormones that are critical to our health, such as insulin (which is secreted by the pancreas to remove glucose from the bloodstream) and leptin (which is the hormone that tells us we are full), and it does not suppress ghrelin (our hunger hormone), all of which can lead to over-eating and weight gain.
Eating moderate amounts of fruit, particularly seasonally, is not necessarily a problem, particularly as it contains fibre, which slows down the absorption, however it can create issues for those who are insulin resistant. Insulin resistance occurs when cells begin to ignore to the efforts of insulin, causing the pancreas to release increasing quantities in order to remove the glucose from the bloodstream. Eventually this can lead to Type 2 Diabetes where medications are required to lower blood glucose.
Unfortunately, in our modern world, we have such excesses of fructose and glucose from other sources that our intake of fruit only adds to this. Fructose that is found in processed foods (particularly high fructose corn syrup) is extremely damaging to the body – and the liver in particular, as it can have the same effect as alcohol, resulting in non-alcoholic fatty liver. Excess fructose can also create gut imbalances and promote bacterial overgrowth and is associated with impaired brain functioning. Excess fruit consumption can lead to bloating, high blood sugar levels, raised triglycerides (fat in the blood), fatigue due to sugar crashes and problems with gaining or losing weight.
Fruit is easy to overeat, because it is sweet and delicious. However, this was not always the case and what we now load up on, in an effort to reach our 5 or 10 a day, is very different from what we would have eaten even just 50 years ago. Dr Donald Davis, a professor at the University of Texas, led a study designed to investigate the effects of modern cultivation and the nutrient density of fruit and vegetables. They found significant differences between fruits and vegetables from 1950 and 1999, including notable declines in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (Vit B2), Vitamin A and Vitamin C. As an example, we would have to eat 8 whole oranges today to get the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents would have received from just one!
As we began domesticating crops, farmers chose the least bitter, lower in fibre and higher in starch, sugar and oils from which to begin their genetic engineering.
What we have available today is consequently more palatable to our ever-increasing sweet-tooth, but considerably less advantageous to health.
Added to the genetic modification of plants, our depleted soils also mean that there is less mineral content available, resulting in declines of copper, iron, magnesium and potassium, to name but a few. And because we have now become accustomed to a huge variety of fruit available to us year round, this means that the produce is picked before it ripens, leading to a further loss in vitamin content. Each successive generation of fast-growing, super-sized, pest-resistant fruit is less nutrient-dense than the previous.
Research comparing phytonutrients from wild fruits and vegetables compared to commercially grown show a huge difference, for example; one species of apple contained 100 times more than it’s commercially grown cousin. Wild dandelions are 7 times more nutrient-dense than spinach and purple potatoes from Peru (say that quickly!!) contain 28 times more cancer fighting anthocyanins than our regular russet potatoes.
In our ancestors day fruits were only eaten seasonally (primarily during summer), not year round and would have been necessary for the storage of body fat required for surviving through a hard winter when food was scarce. However, the fruits were virtually unrecognisable as the ones we see in our shops today. Peaches, for example, were small, hard and cherry like, unlike the ones we are so familiar with today – which are now a whopping 64 times larger! Apples were small and tart and much more fibrous.
Although fruit does provide phytonutrients, many people feel that this justifies eating – or drinking – several portions in one day. But just one 16oz smoothie can contain 46 grams of fructose sugars!
Drinking fruit juice is akin to drinking sodas such as coke – and we are all becoming much more aware of the high sugar content in sodas, and the impact they have on our health. Fruit juice is just as problematic – injecting a huge sugar dose straight into the bloodstream and to the liver, where it can contribute to the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Limiting intake to a couple of portions of whole fruit a day – if you are metabolically healthy – is actually all you need to reap the benefits of the nutrients they offer. But if you have metabolic issues such as insulin resistance, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity etc you might want to cut fruit out altogether, and definitely limit fruit with a high fructose content such as bananas, tropical fruits, grapes, kiwis, cherries and particularly dried fruit, as this is packed with sugar and extremely easy to overeat.
Fruits such as avocados, olives (yes they are actually fruit!) lemons and limes are super low in fructose with the added benefit that avocados and olives are loaded with healthy fats. Berries also pack a phytonutrient punch without being too high in their sugar content. A handful tastes great paired with a spoonful of live yogurt.
Whilst you shouldn’t be afraid of fruit, it is important to eat it mindfully. Treat it as an occasional dessert after you have eaten a nutrient dense meal, if you are still hungry.
But if you are needing to up your intake of fruit and vegetables generally, then concentrate on adding in a wide variety of fibrous veggies first, as these offer a multitude of health benefits without the detrimental effects that fructose can have on your liver and metabolic health.