Harvesting the Benefits of Fruit

 
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There was a time when the advice “Eat your fruits and veggies” was never questioned, but society’s recent obsession with sugar, carbs, and calories has led to confusion about the health benefits of fruit, especially for people with type 2 diabetes. Despite conflicting headlines, fruit is good for you.  Regularly eating fruit is linked with a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Fruit does have sugar. The sugar molecules in whole fruit are much like those in refined or extracted sugar, like white table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup (found in highly-processed foods). The amount of sugar from eating a whole piece of fruit, however, is quite small compared to the amount of added sugar in processed foods. 

Here’s the real key: Our body responds to the sugar in whole fruits very differently than added sugar.  The main reason is that the sugar found in fruit comes within a natural package of fiber and water which helps slow the rate at which sugar is absorbed. The fiber found in fruit also feeds your good gut bacteria and helps you feel full longer. Think how full you feel after eating a crisp, juicy apple (about 15 grams of natural sugar), compared to after gulping down a can of soda (about 40 grams of added sugar). That soda has much more added sugar than the daily maximum amount the American Heart Association recommends per day: 25 grams of added sugar for women or 37.5 grams for men.  

Whole fruit also comes bundled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, which are plant-based compounds that help prevent cancer and promote heart health. 

On the other hand, sweet baked goods and other processed foods with added sugar usually include fat (butter or oil) and salt, but little to no fiber, so their sugar is absorbed quickly. They’re made to be yummy, so you eat a lot. 

Our brains love this combo of high sugar and high fat. But it’s very rare in nature to find such foods. (Breast milk is the best example. Babies need the fat to grow and the sugar makes them want to eat it often.)  Fruit is typically very low fat and high fiber with high water content. So it’s unlikely you’ll eat too much. The one exception: avocados. (Many people don’t know they’re a fruit.) They’re very high-fat, but are also unique in that, compared to other fruits, they’re very low in sugar. 

What About Juice?

So whole fruits are very healthy but the story on juice isn’t as sweet! Limiting fruit juice is important. When fruit is juiced, it loses the benefits of the whole fruit. No more fiber. No more chewing to slow down how the body absorbs the sugar. Many fruit juices aren’t even 100% real fruit. They’re mixtures of added sugar, artificial flavors, and colors. Always check the ingredient list. Even if it says 100% juice or “made from concentrate,” beware.  Even 100% fruit juices can contain as much sugar as soda. This high sugar will be quickly absorbed, causing spikes in blood sugar levels.  

1 Whole Orange (7 oz) 8 oz 100% Orange Juice 8 oz Orange Soda
Sugar 11.9 g 22.0 g 29.2 g
Fiber 3.1 g 0 g 0 g

Nutrition Content from Calorie King

What About Smoothies?

Though smoothies have a standing reputation as a health food, here’s another case where it’s better to chew fruit than to sip it. Choose smoothies with care, especially if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes. Unlike juice, smoothies do contain fiber. This fiber, however, is broken down in the blending process. Research shows this can have a surprising effect: if you take in exactly as many calories in liquid form as you might in solid form, you may take in a greater amount of calories later in the day. That’s because the liquid food doesn’t satisfy your appetite as much as solid food.  Also blending food increases the rate at which nutrients, including sugar, are absorbed. This means your blood sugar level after drinking a smoothie spikes higher and faster than if you ate the same food in solid form, followed by a quick drop in blood sugar. That leaves you hungry -- and more likely to overeat.

However, smoothies can be an easy way to increase your veggie and fruit intake.  So if you do choose smoothies, follow these tips to help prevent a blood sugar spike:

  • Avoid store-bought smoothies. They often contain juice and added sugar.  Instead, make your own at home.

  • Add greens and other veggies, like cauliflower or beets.

  • Use less than 2 servings of whole fruit per smoothie.

  • Add a ¼ cup of raw, steel-cut oats, a ½ cup of cooked beans, 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed, or a tablespoon of nut butter. This will slow the absorption of sugar. 

  • Drink your smoothie slowly. Make it last one or more hours. 

As You Add More Fruit Into Your Diet... 

  • Limit dried fruits. They are more sugar-dense and make you feel less full than fresh or frozen fruit. 

  • Pair your fruit with another snack high in protein, fiber, or fat. This will help your body digest the fruit more slowly and result in a smaller rise in blood sugar than if you ate the fruit on its own. This is key if you have Type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, which causes insulin resistance. In these cases, eating fruit or drinking smoothies can cause blood sugar to spike in a way that it won’t for someone who doesn’t have these conditions.  For example, try eating fruit with nuts, quinoa, avocado, or oats. Or enjoy a piece of fruit for dessert at the end of a meal. The good news: once you’re eating mostly whole plant foods, this insulin resistance may decrease, allowing more flexibility in how you eat your fruit. 

  • At first, focus on lower glycemic index (GI) fruits, such as berries, pears and apples. The GI tells you how quickly foods containing carbohydrates affect blood sugar when eaten alone. Lower GI foods cause slower rises in blood sugar. As you start to eat more whole plant foods and your insulin resistance improves, you can start to incorporate higher glycemic fruits like watermelon and mangoes.

As you can see, whole fresh fruit is bundled with lots of beneficial nutrients, and you’re unlikely to overeat it.  So go ahead and enjoy the healthiest sweet on earth.  

YOUR CHALLENGE

Try one or more of these ideas to help you choose fruit more often:

  1. Keep fruit where you can see it. Try placing a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter. You’ll be more likely to reach for some as a healthy snack in place of a more processed food.   

  2. Prep single servings of fresh fruits in grab-and-go containers. Think apple or plum slices or berries. You’ll make it easy to pick fruit when in a rush.  

  3. Explore your local farmer’s market. It’s a great place to find in-season fruits and good deals, try new types, and meet the folks who grow them! You’ll truly be eating farm to table.

 
 
EATKara Mosesso