It is high summer in the Pacific Northwest and all I want to eat is fruit. I spend my lunch hour walks picking neglected fruit from neighborhood trees. My bike ride home passes two farmers markets and this time of year I always stop and buy some cherries (consequently, the gutters lining my route home are littered with cherry pits as I ride, munch, and spit). The other day, I managed to get a 12-pound watermelon home in my bike basket without toppling over. And I’m scratched to heck from weekly visits to my “secret” blackberry patch.
Whole fruit in season is truly a gift of delicious taste and health all wrapped up in one neat little package containing vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, fiber, sugars, carbohydrates, water, and not many calories. New research shows it can even ward off diabetes.
All of which are why I was happy to see that The New York Times ran an article called “Making the Case for Eating Fruit” that cautioned against fruit becoming “a casualty in the sugar wars.” The “wars” refers to this year’s slew of articles and books on the perils and pervasiveness of refined sugar and processed foods engineered to get you hooked.
It used to be that many people were afraid to eat whole fruit for fear it has too many carbs; now many people are afraid to eat fruit because they fear it has too much sugar. Unless you are a diabetic, this is an unfounded fear.
In my role as a health coach, I talk to people all the time about whether they are or are not eating fruits and vegetables, or enough of them. Yes, it’s biologically true that sugar can cause insulin to spike and play havoc with our blood sugar levels. And it’s true that added sugar has no nutritional benefits beyond calories. And it may even be true that refined sugar is addictive. But not all sugar is alike. And, as the Times article points out, even Dr. Robert Lustig, a University of California San Francisco professor whose research on obesity and added sugar will make your swear off Skittles, doesn’t believe that fruit is unhealthy.
Sugar in Whole Fruit is Different
The key is that the sugar in whole fruit comes packaged with so much other good stuff. Fiber slows down the digestion of the sugar and prevents insulin spikes; phytonutrients provide overall health and possible cancer prevention. And the fiber and water in fruit help you feel full longer, which some studies have shown may help you eat less and lose weight. And while it’s true that diabetics do need to watch their fruit intake as part of their insulin monitoring, most people do not eat nearly enough fresh whole fruit.
I’ve found that much of the fad-based “expert” advice about food and nutrition in the media has many people second-guessing themselves about what they should be eating. Most of us know that we should eat more fruits and vegetables and less processed junk food. In addition to the current anti-sugar crusades, trends that focus on choosing organics over conventional fruit, pesticide residues, and even “superfoods” have introduced new excuses to turn people away from eating any produce at all.
Organic vs. conventional fruit is an economic issue for people whose income does not allow them to drop $10 on a couple of pounds of organic grapes, certified free of commercial pesticides. Granted, pesticide exposure brings with it potential risks (not just for the consumer, but also for the farm worker), but given the choice between an organic blueberry “fruit” snack and a handful of fresh conventionally-grown blueberries, I would take the fresh blueberries every time. Trendy superfood fruit (think Acai berries) are often refined and packaged with extra calories or featured in such elaborate recipes that one simply wants to give up and eat a bag of chips instead.
Just Eat It
Journalist Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, says fruit should be off the table for those trying to lose weight. But most nutritionists think that is bunk. Fruit is a plant’s way of propagating itself. If animals and humans didn’t eat fruit and spread its seeds around, whole plant species would die out. If biology didn’t mean for us to eat fruit, its scent and taste wouldn’t be so intoxicating to us. To cut fruit from our diets in the name of health is to hubristically fly in the face of the natural order.