Fruit is one of the healthiest food choices you can make – but which fruits are the best? This is a question I am often asked by my clients, and with good reason. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and since fruit is still fairly high in sugar, it is in your best interest to consume the best ones.
Our culture certainly pushes some choices above others. Bananas, apples, fruit juices – are these pushed because they are the best, or are these pushed because we have a surplus of them? Do these fruits’ high sugar content make up for it with a dense supply of nutrients? .And did our ancestors consume a lot of fruits? What about for athletes, what fruits should they be consuming? Can one eat too much fruit? Have no fear – all of these questions will be answered!
1. The “Ultimate” Fruits
We’ll answer the big question first: Which fruits should be consumed on a regular basis? The answer to this question is easy, yet many do not want to believe the answer. Quite simply, the answer is berries. Lots of berries are healthy – they all pack quite a wallop when it comes to antioxidants and polyphenols. Strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries – these all get a thumbs up. Raspberries – yes, those too. Cherries are another good choice. Going organic with any of these fruits is vital. It won’t cost you very much, and it is definitely worth it.
As you will see in this guide, these choices stand out when compared to other fruits. And berries excel in many different categories! The berries listed above are all fairly low in sugar, high in nutrients and can be consumed as a part of many healthful recipes. But – interestingly – some of the fruits we consume regularly are not quite as healthy as they could be. Sometimes industry gets between our health and our food! That being said, a less-than-ideal fruit choice is still a pretty good choice – so keep a positive, healthy perspective on the following information.
2. The Mighty Banana
Now, let’s talk about the most common fruits in this country – starting with bananas. As a kid, in fact, I don’t think I realized there were many other fruits that mattered! Being active, this wasn’t the worst thing that could have occurred, since I was burning a lot of energy. But bananas are very high in sugar – a potential problem for some.
The average American eats over 25 pounds of bananas every year! Bananas are actually the fourth most popular agricultural product in the world. That gives companies a pretty big incentive to push their consumption, no? And yet, when we dig into the details of bananas, they don’t really hold up (at least for daily consumption). This may be somewhat surprising – and I don’t mean to be negative.
Too many fruits can raise blood sugar too high, which can unknowingly lead to many health problems (including diabetes). Bananas contain almost an entire day’s worth of sugar – yet very few vitamins and minerals. This is the exact opposite of an ideal fruit. We want fruits to be nutrient-dense, fairly low in sugar (especially fructose) and high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Still, though – they are a pretty good overall choice, since you’re still eating fruit. Just don’t load up on the bananas if you have blood sugar issues or are highly sedentary, and try to replace some bananas with a smaller serving of berries, when you can.
3. An Apple A Day
Apples are next on our list. Do they hold up to the old “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” adage? The data does not quite support that hypothesis. In fact, apples are absolute last in terms of nutrient density! Hmm, puzzling, isn’t it? Apples are also high in sugar – 19 grams in less than 100 calories! This is close to an entire day’s worth of sugar!
Unfortunately, it seems that apples do not hold up to daily consumption, either. Now remember, semi-occasional apples won’t kill you, and they are still a whole, fibrous fruit. Apples are certainly a better choice than a soda. But if one is looking to be “ultimately” healthy, they may wish to replace some apples with a handful of berries, which have a little less sugar, and a little more nutrients. Vitamin C and fiber are two reasons why you’d want to eat apples regularly, but both of those things can also be found in slightly better nutritional choices. “An apple a week” might be a slightly better rule to follow!
4. Fruit Juices
Interestingly, fruit juice is not as healthy as it would seem. But it sure is popular! We may even consume more fruit juice than actual fruits in this country! Nearly everyone drinks fruit juice on a weekly basis, despite the fact that it is eerily similar to soda in many respects. What many people do not realize is that these juices are stripped of all fiber.
Regular consumption of them in excess is metabolically unhealthy, and less than ideal for our teeth. Fruit juices are a common misstep in an otherwise healthy diet, and nearly everyone is guilty of indulging. But ultimately, if you keep your consumption in check, and don’t drink them regularly, you will still get some benefits of the fruits included within.
(Read: 12 Painless Ways to Cut Sugar Out of Your Diet)
It is a little frustrating for someone who has worked with many clients on a regular basis that the perception that fruit juice is somehow healthy is so prevalent. It has been shown repeatedly to, in fact, be very unhealthy. I don’t blame the consumer, though. This widespread consumption almost definitely comes from the very misleading advertising. Fruit juices are also high in the fruits that contain large amounts of fructose, which can lead to overeating, and are also bad for your liver. Avoid the ads, forget the juices, and eat some berries (or even other fruits that are whole in nature!) Your brain, body (and liver) will thank you for it!
5. Paleo Fruits?
So we’ve covered some big misnomers so far, but did our ancestors consume fruit? If so, what kind, and how often? What does the data say? It seems that there was indeed not one specific Paleo diet, and that if our ancestors ate fruit, it was only seasonally and on a very limited basis. Vegetables are largely more nutrient-dense, much lower in sugar, and also lower in calories. They also tend to contain more fiber. So is there a Paleolithic basis for recommending fruit? Technically, the answer may be yes. But if you’re looking to optimize your diet and keep your sugar intake low (critical, in today’s over-sweetened world) fruit intake should still be kept fairly low.
Our ancestors knew this, somewhat intrinsically, or perhaps accidentally. But they certainly weren’t consuming sugary substances day in and day out – aggressively, year-round. We, however, do consume that much sugar – and it is not helping our health.
Unfortunately, fruit does not get a free pass – it is just as bad as soda in terms of sugar. I think the average consumer has been a little misled. The very misleading advertising has made some believe that fruit of any kind (even juices) are “superfoods” and the sugar somehow doesn’t count. Nothing could be further from the truth!
6. Fruit And Athletes
Continuing along our “ultimate” theme, we must leave no stone unturned! So what about athletes? Can they consume more fruit? While those who are more active can certainly get away with – and in fact usually need – more carbohydrates in their diet, they still will want to keep daily intake of sugar fairly low, as it is not good for their teeth or liver.
The only time when this can be somewhat overlooked is right around the workout window, when your body can use some extra sugar to replenish glycogen stores. But this doesn’t mean go hog wild! This just means that athletes can get away with a little more fruit in their diet on a regular basis. Again, you can easily see how aggressive marketing has tricked the world into consuming more fruit juices and artificial beverages than we need. I’m looking at you, Gatorade!
7. Sugar Is Sugar
Keep in mind that sugar from soda is not really any different than sugar from fruit. Somehow, some of us have been duped into consuming one but not the other. In reality, a large majority of us actually consume both. One is just socially frowned upon, while the other has been deemed healthy. Either way, food companies still win here – which is the real bottom line.
The Bottom Line
After reading this piece, you might think I’m pretty down on fruit. This couldn’t be further from the truth! I’m just trying to help clear up some common misnomers – ones that I have seen time and time again with clients. All too often, I see those with sugar addictions replace soda with fruit juices – and their health doesn’t improve. The data supports this, as well. We have been duped by advertising – it’s as simple as that.
It is also important to look at the big picture here – if some apples and bananas are the worst things in your diet – you are probably doing pretty well. My point is that if we replace these with some dark berries – of any variety – we will see an improvement in our health. And no matter how active we are, we still need to keep fruit intake fairly low, overall. The vast majority of one’s carbohydrates should come from starchier sources – like sweet potatoes. Add in lots and lots of vegetables, and you have started to build the foundation for an optimal Paleo diet.
Even More Info On Fruit!
For those with questions about fruit, check out this video on nutrient density from Mat LaLonde, PhD at Harvard University. You can see the myths about fruit being shattered right before your eyes, as well as get lots and lots of other great nutritional advice.
In closing, the ultimate choices when it comes to fruit are simple: eat berries – any variety! Cherries are great, too. Choose organic – the extra price tag is worth it. Add in occasional variety if you enjoy apples, bananas, mangos, watermelon, papayas, etc. But still keep your overall sugar intake low – your brain and body will both thank you for it!