Am I cruel to write this? Maybe. But it has to be written.
I realize it’s the middle of summer and just about every fruit worth eating is in season. Peaches are perfectly ripe, apricots are plump, and berries are bursting with flavor.
Even if you’re not a year round fruit-i-vore, summer makes you want to be one.
In every client nutrition session, I hear about what people eat. At minimum, I have them recall what they’ve eaten in the past 24 hours. At most, I have 2 weeks of written record.
And one thing I see people overdoing time and time again is fruit. Especially in summer.
But, but, but…
“Fruit is healthy”
“Fruit is the perfect snack”
“Fruit has vitamin C and antioxidants”
Yes, yes, these things are true…-ish. It seems the past few decades of government sponsored nutrition messages to eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day have been lost in a game of telephone. Somewhere along the way, people forgot that vegetables were part of that sentence and many people took it as an excuse to go way overboard on fruits in the name of health.
But that “healthy habit” might not be doing you any favors.
Here Are 5 Signs You’re Eating Too Much Fruit
1. You’re Frequently Bloated
Fruit is a classic trigger for bloating and here’s why. Fruit is rich in a type of sugar called fructose. Unfortunately, many of us are not well equipped to digest and absorb large amounts of fructose. Researchers believe up to 40% of people suffer from a condition called fructose malabsorption in which fructose is inefficiently absorbed across the small intestine. So instead of nourishing us, sometimes fruit sits in the gut and ferments with the help of bacteria. And the result of those bacteria feasting on fructose is a lot of gas and bloating that makes us feel pretty icky.
Now, glucose (also present in fruit) does help facilitate absorption of fructose, which many use as an argument to suggest fruit is fine and only refined fructose is an issue. But, that’s only true to a certain extent. Most fruits have been bred to be larger and contain more fructose than their great grand parents (the original apple was about as large and sweet as a crab apple), so you can understand how the human body might not have the skills to handle it. If hefty portions of fruit leave your tummy in knots, chances are you have some level of fructose malabsorption and you probably should lay off the fruit.
“The most important carbohydrates that routinely cause clinical abdominal complaints are lactose, fructose, and the sugar alcohol sorbitol. Lactose has long been recognized as one of the most important nutrients, and fructose and sorbitol have become increasingly important following recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable consumption” – World J Gastroenterol. 2007.
Side note – In addition to fructose malabsorption, you can also have an inflammatory reaction to fructose. I tested reactive to fructose via the Mediator Release Test, which measures chemical and food sensitivities, so I have to be doubly careful with the amount of fruit I eat!
2. You Have Diarrhea or IBS
Along with the fructose absorption issues I described above, which does commonly lead to diarrhea, let me explain another possibility for why fruit messes up your digestion. Fruits are designed by nature to carry seeds and make a new plant, so when you think about it, it’s in their best interest to notbe fully digested by humans. The plant is hoping that some of its seeds will survive transit and get, shall I say, “deposited” in a new location to grow a new fruit tree/plant. (I should have taken a photo of the massive bear poop from a recent Alaskan hike through berry-filled bear country, but you’ll have to take my word for it. It was solid berry seeds! And, no, I did not see a bear…. this time…)
“The clinical symptoms of carbohydrate malabsorption [including fructose malabsorption] include flatulence, abdominal cramps and pain, diarrhea, and sometimes even headache, usually after the ingestion of a product containing the incompletely absorbed sugar.” – World J Gastroenterol. 2007.
Many fruits (like apples) are also rich in pectin, a type of fiber that folks with IBS may have trouble fully breaking down. If you have IBS, it’s possible that an apple a day will NOT keep the doctor away.
“Faecal bacteria of IBS patients showed the lowest ability to degrade pectin.” – Acta Vet Brno. 2002.
3. You Can’t Lose Weight (or losing weight)
You’ve already switched to a real food diet, you’ve cut out soda, candy, processed foods, etc… but there’s one problem: you’re still not losing weight. If you’re still battling the scale after adopting healthier habits, you might consider looking at your fruit intake.
I agree that fruit is a healthier alternative to many desserts and junk foods, but if fruit is a staple item at every meal and snack, you may simply be eating too many carbohydrates to allow your body to lose weight. In brief, any time we eat carbohydrates our blood sugar goes up. That triggers our body to release insulin to lower the blood sugar. How does it do that? By converting it to fat for storage!
It’s unfair to single out fruit, but if you’ve already overhauled your diet, this could be the stone left unturned. We’re quick to blame bread and sweets for our weight, but when you realize that a banana packs the same number of carbs as 2 slices of bread and more than some candy bars, you might have a different perspective. Also, be sure to read #4 and #5!
4. You Always Crave Sugar
Not only does eating fruit spike your blood sugar, as explained above, it also doesn’t sustain it for very long. If you have fruit by itself as a snack, you might notice that you’re satisfied for 30 minutes or so, but soon after your tummy starts growling. That’s because fruit doesn’t come packaged with much protein or fat to keep us sated. Yes, it has fiber, which helps a bit, but it’s not enough to prevent a crash in blood sugar after eating fruit.
What happens when our blood sugar tanks? We get hungry and we get cravings.
For what? For foods that will raise the blood sugar quickly; anything sweet or starchy.
Aside from the blood sugar-hunger connection, the fructose in fruits has another seldom-discussed effect. Fructose does not trigger the release of leptin, a hormone that signals satiety, and instead triggers the release of ghrelin, a hunger stimulating hormone. No wonder eating fruit makes you want to eat more fruit!
So, do your body a favor and eat that apple with some peanut butter, those blueberries with some full-fat Greek yogurt (or homemade, unsweetened whipped cream!), and that peach with a handful of almonds. The fat and protein from those additions will help dampen the effects of fructose and you’ll be surprised what a difference it makes. This sort of food combining is especially helpful at breakfast.
5. You Love Smoothies and Juice
I’m already bracing for the hate mail, but again, this has to be said. Yes, your green juice is better than most drinks, but if it contains fruit, it’s likely packed with sugar.
When fruit is juiced and you remove the fiber, the remaining sugar is absorbed quite rapidly into your bloodstream leading to what I described in #3 and #4. A 12oz cup of fruit juice, even freshly squeezed organic OJ, has the same amount of sugar as a can of soda. Now the classic rebuttal is to just make a smoothie, and while I do believe this is a better option, I still don’t think it’s ideal.
Even when you chew fruit very well, it’s still not broken down as finely as when your Vitamix gets to work. By mechanically breaking up the cellular structure of fiber, our body has more immediate access to the sugars contained in the smoothie. So even though you didn’t take out the fiber like you would when juicing, you did impact the rate at which your body will absorb the sugar in your smoothie. And not in a good way.
Plus, when fruit is in a liquid form, we can eat a whole lot more of it. A 4oz glass of juice has the sugar of 1 apple, but that sure doesn’t feel like a full serving!
You might stop at 1 or 2 apples if you’re munching on them fresh, but 2 apples worth of juice is just a few gulps.
If you believe you should join Smoothie-aholics Anonymous and can’t go without your fix, you might try making your smoothie with a reasonable portion of low-sugar fruits, like berries, and combine it with nuts, coconut milk, and chia seeds to lessen the impact on your blood sugar. If green juice is your thing, juice only non-starchy vegetables.
So, now that all the fruit-lovers have mysteriously vanished from my life, you may be asking…
What’s a reasonable amount of fruit to eat in a day?
In general – and unless you’re following a very low carbohydrate diet – I suggest 2 portions of fruit daily, preferably in its fresh and whole form. If you really want bonus points, make one (or both) of those portions berries.
If you are very physically active, at a healthy weight, and/or thrive on a higher carbohydrate diet, by all means, eat more! I don’t pretend to create set-in-stone “rules” here.
How much is a portion?
A portion of fruit is defined as approximately a ½ cup (handful) or the size of a small apple. (Not half a watermelon or a jumbo bowl of fruit salad.)
Vegetables are far more nutrient-dense than fruits when it comes to vitamins and minerals. And the classic nutrients that people use to defend high consumption of fruit are readily available in low-carbohydrate vegetables.
Potassium is easily found in avocados, chard, mushrooms and kale, vitamin C in raw broccoli, bell peppers and tomatoes, and antioxidants are abundant in all vegetables, but especially the green and leafy variety.
I’m not saying don’t eat fruit.
I’m suggesting you be mindful of your portions, particularly if you identify with any of the 5 signs you’re eating too much fruit detailed above and opt for lower-sugar varieties when given the option.