June 27, 2013 By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
Sugar has been making headlines as of late, with celebrities and trainers alike singling it out as one of the key culprits in America’s obesity crisis. Trouble is, fruit–because it contains natural sugar–sometimes gets lumped in with foods like baked goods, candy, and sugary drinks, and as a result, unnecessarily shunned. But in my private practice, I still recommend eating fruit–even for clients trying to lose weight.
Here are five important reasons to continue to enjoy cherries, berries, melon and other juicy gems, as part of a healthy weight loss strategy.
Fruit eaters tend to weigh less
Even I, a nutritionist, was surprised by the research, which has found that people who eat more servings of fruit have lower BMIs, even more so than veggie eaters. Scientists aren’t sure why, but it may be because fruits tend to replace higher calorie goodies and treats, whereas veggies tend to be add-ons. In other words, you’re much more likely to choose an apple (rather than broccoli) instead of a cookie. And that swap-out strategy can result in significant calorie savings over time. Even just once a week, reaching for one cup of fresh blueberries rather than a blueberry muffin would save 19,552 calories in a year’s time, enough to shed at least five pounds of body fat. In addition, emerging research indicates that consuming more produce is tied to smaller waist measurements, and lower body fat percentages, even without taking in fewer calories, meaning that the quality of your calories is key.
Fruit is packed with water and fiber
Apart from impressive nutrients, fresh fruit is high in water and fiber, so its naturally occurring sugar is less concentrated than other sweet foods. For example, one cup of whole strawberries naturally contains about 7 grams of sugar, compared to about 13 grams in one tablespoon of maple syrup, 17 in a tablespoon of honey, 21 grams in 17 gummy bears, or 30 in a 12 ounce can of cola. And even in fruits that pack more sweetness per bite, the sugar is bundled with valuable protective substances. Mango, for example, has been shown to prevent or stop the growth of breast and colon cancer cells.
Fruit has awesome antioxidants
While you’ll find some of the same vitamins and minerals in both veggies and fruits, eliminating the latter altogether would cut out a broad spectrum of antioxidants that are unique to specific fruits or fruit “families.” In other words, the antioxidants found in stone fruits (cherries, peaches, plums) differ from those found in pomes (apples, pears), citrus (oranges, grapefruits, tangerines), melon (honeydew, cantaloupe), berries (raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries), and tropical fruits (banana, mango, papaya). That’s key, because different types of antioxidants do different things. One study, in female volunteers, found that eating a wider array of the exact same amount of produce for two weeks resulted in significantly less oxidation, a marker for premature aging and disease. In other words, even at the same quantity, a greater diversity offers more benefits. If you think of antioxidants as “cell defenders,” it just makes sense–smaller numbers of troops from a larger number of armed services–each with distinct abilities–offer more overall protection. To reap the rewards, the smartest strategy is to not only eat fruit, but mix it up–rather than munching an apple every day, alternate the types of fruit you buy, as well as the colors.
Fruit has beauty benefits
More good news about those aforementioned antioxidants–the rewards of consuming a wider assortment can literally be seen in your skin. One recent study tracked the diets of 35 people, took photos of them, and asked others to rate the pics. Those who ate an average of 2.9 more portions of produce daily, including both veggies and fruits, were rated as healthier looking, and those who downed an extra 3.3 portions per day were ranked as more attractive. Researchers say antioxidants are the explanation–in addition to affecting skin pigment, they also improve circulation, which boosts blood flow to the skin surface, imparting a natural glow. Antioxidants also fend off compounds that damage skin from the outside in, including free radicals produced by sun exposure, pollution, and cigarette smoke.
Fruit provides endurance-boosting energy
If you’re active, consuming fruit pre-workout is a great way to fuel exercise and energize your cells. One study, which compared bananas to a sports drink during intense cycling, found that in addition to providing antioxidants and nutrients not found in sports drinks, bananas triggered a greater shift in dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in movement and mood (some research also indicates that a low dopamine level may be tied to obesity). Other studies, that compared raisins to sports supplements, found that shrunken grapes were just as effective at supporting endurance, but raisins provide bonus nutrients. These include antioxidants, as well as boron, a mineral that helps keep bones strong, and inulin, a fiber-like carbohydrate that acts as a prebiotic, a substance that helps support the growth of probiotics, the “good” bacteria in your GI tract that boost immunity and keep your digestive system healthy. I guess what I’m getting at here is there’s far more to fruit than sugar alone. And if you’re active, a moderate amount of fruit sugar will fuel your cells, not fatten them.
Bottom line: with so many benefits, fruit is definitely worth including in your daily diet. But that doesn’t mean you can eat unlimited quantities. Because fruits do pack about three to four times as much carbohydrate as veggies, your daily intake should be based on your body’s energy needs. For most women, a healthy goal is two daily servings, with one serving being one cup fresh, about the size of a tennis ball. In my newest book S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches, I include one serving of fruit in each breakfast meal and one in every snack. For most of my clients, this is the perfect amount to reap fruits’ nutritional and health rewards, without interfering with weight loss.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.