Is Fruit Good For You?

How fruit fits into a healthy diet and how to avoid too much of a good thing.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
March 22, 2010
Episode #086

A lot of you have written to me lately asking questions about fruit: Am I getting enough? Am I getting too much? Am I getting the right kinds?  Are some kinds better than others? So, let’s talk about fruit and how it fits into a healthy diet.

Is Fruit Good for You?

Fresh fruit contains lots of good stuff, including fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.  Nutritionally-speaking, some fruits are a little more turbo-charged than others. Citrus fruit, kiwis, grapes and all types of berries are particularly high in disease-fighting antioxidants, for example.  But you can’t go wrong when you go for variety, starting with whatever is in season and local.

How Much Fruit Should You Eat a Day?

In the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA recommends that you eat about two cups of fruit a day as a way to help meet your nutritional requirements. And because fruit tends to be sweet and yummy, that’s no hardship for most people.   But it is possible to overdo it.  Along with all the good stuff, fruit also contains a fair amount sugar, and that’s generally something we want to keep an eye on.

With whole fresh fruit, there are some built-in portion controls.  Fresh fruit generally contains a lot of fluid and fiber. According to research by Barbara Rolls, these are the kinds of foods that tend to fill you up on fewer calories. She has developed a whole weight loss strategy built on this concept, which you can read about in her book, Volumetrics.

Obviously, if you’re craving something sweet for an afternoon snack, you’d be a whole lot better off with a juicy piece of fresh fruit than a cinnamon bun.   Even if that means an extra serving of fruit, if it helps keep your hand out of the cookie jar, I think you’re way ahead of the game.  You just don’t want to use the fact that fruit is natural and healthy as a license to ignore the fact that it is also somewhat high in sugar.

Is Dried Fruit Good for You?

In terms of sugar and calories, you can easily do as much damage with raisins as you can with jelly beans.

In particular, it’s easy to get into trouble with dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots. Many kids—and adults—will eat dried fruit like candy, because it tastes a lot like candy. And there’s a reason for that.  When you dehydrate fruit, you concentrate the natural sugars into a much smaller package. You lose those natural portion control factors that I mentioned earlier. And that can lead you to consume a lot more sugar and calories than you mean to.

A cup of grapes, for example, contains about 23 grams of sugar and 104 calories. A cup of raisins, on the other hand, contains 100 grams of sugar and 500 calories.  Although the raisins have some fiber and a few vitamins, in terms of sugar and calories, you can easily do as much damage with raisins as you can with jelly beans--especially if your guard is down because you think of raisins as a “healthier” choice.

Is Fruit Juice Healthy?

People also tend to overestimate the nutritional value of fruit juice. For example, a lot of people think they can improve their kid’s nutrition by giving them fruit juice, like orange juice, instead of soda.  But the truth is that eight ounces of apple juice has approximately the same amount of sugar as eight ounces of ginger ale.  And let’s be frank: most of the nutritional value of the apple is long gone.  The fiber has all been removed. Most of the nutrients are lost in processing. Despite its seemingly wholesome origins, apple juice is really nutritionally equivalent to sugar water.

Food manufacturers have come up with an insidious new twist on this: They’re now pushing fruit-and-vegetable juice blends as ways to get an extra serving or two of vegetables into your family.  I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, but nutritionally-speaking, that is a real stretch. Not only are these juice drinks high in sugar and calories, but their nutritional value is pitiful compared to what you’d get from eating a serving of actual vegetables.  All told, I’m not sure it’s a net gain nutritionally.

When it comes to fruit juice, less really is more.  Research shows that people who drink more fruit juice have a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, eating more whole fruit decreases your risk.  If I had my way, fruit juice would not be in the “fruit” category of the USDA’s Food Pyramid, but in the sweetened beverage category.

How to Eat Fruit

Here are my quick and dirty tips on how to eat fruit.

  1. Aim for about 2 cups of fruit a day.  This, by the way, is the same as the recommendation you sometimes hear to eat 4 servings of fruit a day—that’s based on ½ cup servings.  This guideline is for an average-sized person, eating about 2,000 calories a day. If you’re on the small side or you need to watch your calories, cut back to 1 or 1 ½ cups a day. If you’re large (but not overweight) or you’re very active, you may be able to increase it to 3 cups a day.   A cup is about the size of your fist.  An average-size apple, orange, or banana would count as a cup.  For apricots or plums, two would count as a cup. 

  2. For maximum nutrition and health, fresh or unsweetened frozen fruit is your best choice.  Processed fruits like fruit cocktail or applesauce aren’t as nutritious and often contain added sugars. Fruit juice is also generally lower in vitamins and lacking the fiber of whole fruit. 

  3. Go for variety.  Because different types of fruits feature different nutrient profiles, your best bet is to eat a wide variety of fruit.  Always start with whatever is local and in season where you live.

  4. Watch the portion sizes on dried fruit.   Portion sizes are different for dried fruit than for fresh fruit. A quarter cup of raisins or a third of a cup of dried apricots, prunes, or apple slices is equal to one cup of fresh fruit.

  5. Eat fruit instead of sweets.  Most diet plans include a small number of discretionary calories. It’s often about 10% of your total calories. So, if you eat about 2,000 calories a day, you get 200 or so to spend on whatever you want.  You can spend it on a chocolate chip cookie or a glass of wine.  Or, if you like, you can spend those discretionary calories on another serving or two of fruit or fruit juice.

Fruit should always be washed properly to reduce the risk of soil, bacteria, and pesticide residues.  I have a great Quick Tip that will help you do just that cheaply and effectively.

See the links below to some other articles I’ve written on this topic.  I also have a handy Quick Tip on freezing your summer fruits so you can enjoy delicious smoothies in the winter; you can find it right here.

For information on how you can support the local foods movement and locate a farmers' market near you, please click here.

This is Monica Reinagel, reminding you that these tips are provided for your information and entertainment but they are not intended as medical advice. You can also post comments and questions on today’s episode below or on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page or on Twitter.   I answer a lot of listener questions in my free weekly newsletter, so if you’ve sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.

Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!

Further Reading:

Are Vegetables Better Than Fruit?

Juice and Diabetes Risk

How Healthy is 100% fruit juice, really?

Fruit image courtesy of Shutterstock