If you are like me you grew up thinking fruit was a healthy food option.
Bananas, apples, grapes, berries, pineapple, mangos….yum!
Now fast forward to today and if you are trying to navigate the world of health and wellness you may have seen messaging that fruit is not so good for you.
Fruit seems to cause diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, and it is apparently just as bad for you as consuming a whole bunch of sugar.
Once again we are back to the confusing conflicting messages that we see so often in the health and wellness sphere. This is why I like to write these types of blog posts, because usually there is some sliver of truth to both stances, you just need to understand the context in which they exist.
In my opinion, fruit is pretty harmless for most people. Considering the diet of the average individual that is eating a load of processed food….taking out the Big Gulp and replacing it with an apple is going to be a HUGE win.
Now maybe you are sitting there saying…
“No Ryan, fruit is pure sugar, just like a Big Gulp!.”
While it is true that fruit like an apple does contain sugar, it’s far more nuanced than that.
An average medium apple has 24 grams of carbohydrates in it, 5 grams of which are fiber, the remaining 19 grams are sugar. A Big Gulp has 95 grams of carbohydrates in it, no fiber and 92 grams of sugar.
Do they both have sugar?
Would switching a Big Gulp for even 2 apples be a huge win for someone?
So again, we come back to context….if you are consuming a ton of processed food switching out some of those processed foods for fruit WILL MAKE YOU A HEALTHIER PERSON!!!!
Fruits and vegetables naturally contain sugars in them. From an ancestral perspective we evolved eating these foods with some amount of sugar in them for thousands of years. When humans have other lifestyle factors in line (like sleep, stress, movement, and exercise) then these naturally occurring sugars should not be too much of an issue for us.
The problem comes when our lifestyles are not optimized and/or we start consuming food items with unnatural amounts of sugar in them (like Big Gulps). When our sleep is non-existent, and we sit in a chair most of the day, yeah eating a few servings of fruit is probably not the best idea since you are not utilizing the sugars in them or burning much calories from any of the food you are eating. In a similar vein, if you are consuming hundreds of grams of added sugars in a day, even a large amount of movement and exercise can’t combat the effects that will have.
Again we need to apply context.
Yes, most fruit contains a decent amount of fructose. Here for example is the amount of fructose in a banana.
What’s the problem with fructose?
Fructose is handled differently when it enters your stomach. Unlike other sugars, the body takes fructose and sends it right to the liver to be processed. This upregulates a process in the liver called de novo lipogenesis.
De novo what?
De novo lipogenesis is just a fancy term for the production of fat. Basically fructose gets easily converted to fat.
Where does that fat go? Generally it gets deposited around the liver. This type of fat, called visceral fat, is very bad for our health .
Sounds like fructose is pretty terrible right? Seems like a clear cut case that we should avoid it at all costs.
Hold on one minute, let’s take a closer look at these studies…
If you look at the studies showing that fructose is bad for you, you will notice two things.
- The studies are using beverages with fructose added to them
- The amount of fructose used in these studies is incredibly high
Why is this important?
When we isolate fructose and add it to something like a liquid beverage it gets even more rapidly absorbed and shunted to the liver to be processed. Since the method of delivery for fructose is in a beverage there is less for the body to do to break down the food and so the liver gets this giant bolus of fructose over a very short period of time. The result? The liver must do something with the fructose so it is going to store it as fat to be used later.
In addition to the delivery mechanism used in these studies, the amount of fructose used is extremely high and outside what the average person, even at the high end, consumes. Here is a nice illustration of just how high the amounts are.
The red dots in the graph above are human studies, the blue dots are animal studies. The first dotted line represents 9.1% of energy coming from fructose and that is roughly about what 50% of the human population consumes in fructose. The second dotted line is 14.6% of energy coming from fructose and that is roughly what only 5% of the human population consumes in fructose . Nearly every study in this sample that showed negative effects from fructose were using amounts greater than what 5% of the population consumes in fructose!
This brings us back to the topic of fructose in fruit.
If you are consuming fructose in fruit there are two major differences compared to the studies showing negative health effects from fructose.
- The fructose is consumed in the form of food. That means the digestion of the food takes more time and slows the release of fructose into the gut and therefore does not overload the liver.
- You are not likely to over consume fructose when it is coming from a whole food like fruit. How many apples would you need to eat to get more than 14.6% of your energy from fructose? A LOT!!!!
You might also be saying to yourself…
“Hey Ryan, you are all about ancestral health and fruit today looks nothing like the fruit our ancestors ate!”
Take a guess as to what the above picture is….give up?
Its a wild banana!
That looks nothing like the bananas you find in a grocery store today.
If you want to see some more stunning comparisons check out this article.
Humans are quite intelligent, and we have been able to breed fruit to be more palatable over time. Fruits today are bigger, more sweet, and contain far more edible parts than they did long ago.
However, my counterpoint to this is that it is not just fruit that we have done this to, we have done it to vegetables as well and animals. We have bread all kinds of things so we can extract more energy out of them.
So why is modern fruit bad, but modern chickens, or vegetables are not?
My guess is that it has to do with the sugar (aka fructose) content of modern fruit, but we already discussed how it has not been proven to be harmful in the context of whole (modern) foods like fruit.
That said the way we consume fruit today may have some impacts on our health.
The downside to fruit?
There is a short window in which they taste good, they spoil quite quickly. That means they need to be harvested before they are ripe and chemicals need to be used to preserve them so they can make it to your grocery store looking perfect. These chemicals can be quite harmful to us. For a list of the worst chemically laden fruits see the environmental working group’s dirty dozen list for the worst fruits and vegetables.
The technique to making sure the apple or banana looks perfect when it arrives in the grocery store is to pick the fruit before it is ripe. This means that the fruit contains less of the beneficial nutrients they are often touted to have.
The solution to this problem is to try to buy organic, locally grown fruit if at all possible. This ensures that your fruit has the least amount of harmful chemicals in them and is harvested at peak freshness.
Surely we evolved to eat fruit only when they were around. For a majority of us that evolved in a seasonal climate that meant fruit was really only available to us in the spring and summer months. You can make a solid argument from an evolutionary perspective that only consuming fruit during these months was more evolutionarily appropriate. At the same time, I don’t think having some fruit during the winter is a deal breaker by any means.
I hope this post has put some things in perspective for you with regards to fruit. I went a long period of time avoiding fruit after hearing so many “influencers” say it was bad for your health. In reality, for me as a hard charging athlete, eating a banana from time to time would have been fine. Now fruit is a regular staple in my diet, and I am much better off for it.
That is not to say everyone should be eating fruit all the time. Certainly if your metabolic health is poor, you have pre-diabetes, or diabetes already, you probably want to avoid most fruits until your health improves. If however you are a healthy individual, eating an appropriate amount of fruit can be a healthy part of everyone’s diet. Certainly our ancestors evolved eating fruit, even if it was quite different from what we eat today. Go ahead, enjoy a banana with some peanut butter, or throw some berries on top of your grass-fed yogurt, I promise you won’t be any worse off. It is certainly better than a Big Gulp 😉
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(2021, March 5). Fructose- and sucrose- but not glucose-sweetened beverages …. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.journal-of-hepatology.eu/article/S0168-8278(21)00161-6/fulltext ↑
(2013, March 6). Challenging the Fructose Hypothesis: New Perspectives on …. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3649105/ ↑