Low-sugar diets and irresponsible influencers have led us to believe that fruit is bad. Here’s why we’re not having it
Some people cut out dairy. For others, it’s gluten, or maybe caffeine. While these aren’t necessarily the healthiest of decisions for everybody, they’re generally accepted in today’s world of dietary restrictions and rising intolerances. But one we just can’t wrap our heads around? Cutting out fruit.
Nonetheless, the past few years have seen declining fruit consumption alongside a rising trend for eliminating fruit from the diet as part of a sugar-cleanse – often fuelled by so-called ‘health’ bloggers. According to figures from Public Health England, only 31% of adults and 8% of teenagers are eating the recommended minimum five-a-day of fruit and veg.
Why the bad rep?
While irresponsible influencers and alarmist headlines certainly play a part – indeed, a certain right-wing paper recently proclaimed fructose ‘the fattening carbohydrate’ – there are other factors at play. The sticking point is sugar. ‘The rise in low-sugar diets definitely contributes,’ says dietitian Faith Toogood. ‘In lots of these restrictive diets, like keto, fruit is restricted. Fruit obviously contains sugar, so people think it’s “bad” and fattening. But I think there’s been a miscommunication.’
Any truth to it?
We cannot ignore rising obesity rates or that the number of people with diabetes in the UK has doubled in 20 years. But eating sugar is not the sole cause of weight gain, and it is weight gain, not sugar intake, that directly causes type 2 diabetes. It’s also unlikely that the sugar involved in weight gain came from fruit or pure fruit juice.
‘In the body, all carbs are sugar,’ says Toogood. ‘So yes, it raises your blood sugar levels, raising your insulin levels.’ High insulin levels are associated with obesity and heart disease. ‘But it’s all about portions – eating an entire punnet of grapes is never going to be good. It’s boring, but the diet ethos everyone should follow is moderation and balance.’
The calorie confusion
‘Anything eaten in excess is fattening,’ says Toogood. ‘Your body lays down fat when it has an excess of calories – a calorie surplus. Where those calories come from is largely irrelevant.’
Dr Hazel Wallace believes a lot of misunderstanding is born from our classification of sugars. ‘Some types of sugar are found naturally in foods, like fructose in fruits, glucose in honey, and lactose in milk, whereas others are added to foods,’ she says. ‘We refer to these added sugars as “free sugars” now – these include sugars added to food and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, but also “natural sugars” found in honey, syrups and juices.’
It’s these free sugars, Dr Wallace says, that we should eat less of, as – 100% fruit juice excepted – they contribute to excess calories and tooth decay. But the sugars found in fruit and veg don’t fall into this category. ‘This is because whole fruit and veg also contain good stuff including fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (plant chemicals). The fibre content also slows down the absorption of sugar from the gut into the bloodstream – so it’s less of a “sugar hit”.’ (New research shows fresh orange juice also contains a polyphenol called hesperidin, which further slows down the absorption of sugars.)
The good stuff
Brain food ‘Everything we eat containing carbohydrates, including natural sugars, is broken down into glucose, the brain’s fuel,’ says Toogood. Our muscles need these natural sugars to perform well, and a new study suggests fruit may be as important for mental wellbeing as physical.
Fibre As well as the benefits above, fibre is a friend to our guts. ‘Fibre keeps you fuller for longer, keeps your bowels moving regularly and keeps your gut healthy,’ says Toogood.
Vitamins and minerals ‘Antioxidants, vitamins and minerals all work together in supporting the immune system and general wellbeing,’ says Toogood. They help protect our cells from damage, thus reducing the risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Hydration While not a big contributor to your fluid intake, fruit still plays its part. ‘The body relies on being well hydrated and being even slightly dehydrated can impair performance and make you feel more tired,’ says Toogood.
Convenience Nutritionally, there’s not much between fruit and vegetables, though vegetables do contain less sugar. ‘But fruit is more portable and easier to eat raw,’ says Toogood. ‘So you’re more likely to eat it. ’
Two for one ‘Snacking on fruit is a chance to get in some goodness,’ says Toogood. ‘Have an apple and a plum instead of a chocolate bar, and you’re making every mouthful count.’