You’ve probably heard that “sugar makes you fat.” And rightfully so: there’s a large body of evidence that shows a correlation between increased sugar intake and obesity.
But what about fruit?
All fruit contains sugar-- in the form of fructose. Because of that, you may have heard you should limit your fruit consumption. Many “experts” tout low carb, low fruit diets (especially when paired with exercise) as the best way to burn fat and increase lean body mass.
But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t get the recommended amount of fruit per day.
So who’s right?
When trying to improve your body composition, is fruit your friend or foe?
In this article, we’ll explore several research studies and separate the facts from the myths about eating fruit.
Let’s jump in …
First, let’s look at fruit from an overall health standpoint …
The benefits of eating fruit are well established:
So it’s clear that from a disease prevention and longevity standpoint, eating more fruit is definitely a good idea.
But why, though? What happens in your body when you eat a piece of fruit?
Let’s explore that a bit further …
At the simplest macronutrient level, fruit is comprised of a simple sugar called fructose. That means that fruit should only be looked at as a sugar, right?
Not necessarily. When you eat fruit, your liver processes fructose before it’s absorbed through your small intestine. Research shows that exposing your gut to more fiber-rich foods such as fruit helps “drive the gut ecology toward an anti-obese condition by increasing the prevalence of lean-type bacteria but reducing that of obese-type bacteria.”
In other words, fruit may help foster “good” bacteria that help prevent weight gain.
Because of the purported benefits of fruit consumption, the USDA recommends 2 cups of fruit per day, depending on your age, and says that making half of each plate you eat fruit and vegetables can be an effective strategy to help prevent weight gain. However, they also count fruit juice as part of your daily fruit intake.
What’s the problem with this?
The fructose you get from a piece of fruit is not the same as industrial fructose added to processed products (high fructose corn syrup, for example).
Fruit is packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and, perhaps most importantly, fiber.
Some researchers say the fiber found in fruit helps your body digest these sugars more slowly. Fruit juices, by comparison, rarely contain fiber, which may explain why drinking apple juice causes rapid spikes in blood sugar but eating an apple may not. The issue with this is it can lead to hunger urges and cause you to overeat. Whole fruit, on the other hand, can keep you full longer and reduce your overall caloric intake.
So, at the most basic level, eating fruit provides the body with a carbohydrate energy source. When delving deeper, the array of nutrients that are derived from fruit sources can also help to balance your dietary needs and promote long-term weight maintenance.
What if you’re trying to lose fat?
Does eating lots of fruit have negative effects on body composition because of the high sugar content?
Let’s explore that a bit further.
There have been several clinical trials that have studied how fruit affects your body composition.
A 12-year prospective study of 74,063 female nurses (the infamous “Nurses Health Study”) looked at changes in fruit and vegetable intake in relation to weight gain and obesity risk. The research team found that an increased amount of fruits and vegetables in the diet reduced the likelihood of obesity by 24%.
In regards to weight loss, a study published in the journal Metabolism compared the short-term effects of a low-fructose diet vs a moderate natural (fruit-sourced) fructose diet on weight loss. The researchers found that dieters who only restricted fructose from added sugars lost more weight than the subjects who restricted added sugars and fruit. In other words, eliminating fruit did not have a greater impact on weight loss.
Another study compared 60 obese patients split into two groups: one group reduced their calorie intake by 500 kcal per day and the other focused on consuming eight vegetables per day and 2–3 fruits per day. Regardless of the study group, those who had the greatest increase in fruit and vegetable intake showed the highest amount of weight and fat loss overall.
A 2016 paper published in the journal Nutrients called Paradoxical Effects of Fruit on Obesity that reviewed over 100 studies revealed several interesting findings:
Eating whole fruits can prevent obesity and fat gain in children, too. Fruit juice, however, may have the opposite effect, according to several studies. Researchers actually recommend reducing fruit juice intake as a strategy for overweight prevention in high-risk children. This is particularly important for toddlers, as one study found that drinking 100% fruit juice regularly at age 2 is associated with higher odds of becoming overweight between 2 and 4 years.
Fruit is a primary component of a healthy diet as it contains essential micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. We are also discovering new types of phytochemicals in various fruits with myriad health properties.
These nutrients have a clear “anti-obesity” effect, according to several large-scale clinical studies.
Emerging research has also shown that eating more fruit can “transform your gut ecology” and make you less prone to weight gain. Fruit’s impact on the microbiome is an area that needs further study, but it has exciting implications for better understanding why fruit has so many beneficial effects, despite its seemingly high sugar content.
These positive health benefits from fruit, while still not fully understood, are leading researchers to make conclusions similar to those noted in the Nutrients study, above:
Fruit contains large amounts of simple sugars (glucose, fructose, sucrose, etc.), which are well known to induce obesity. Thus, considering the amount of simple sugars found in fruit, it is reasonable to expect that their consumption should contribute to obesity rather than weight reduction. However, epidemiological research has consistently shown that most types of fruit have anti-obesity effects. Thus, future research should be focusing on identifying anti-obesity components in fruit as an urgent and important task in order to understand the scientific mechanism of obesity but also to develop a method for controlling obesity by increasing fruit consumption.
But the takeaway on fruits in your diet is still pretty clear-cut and requires restating.
Fruits are simple sugar sources. Sugar, when taken at face value, is a source of carbohydrates (and therefore calories) in your diet. Eating too much sugar (even from fruits) can create a caloric surplus and inevitably lead to fat gain over time.
To that end, when consumed whole, fruits provide a spectrum of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber that can support a more well-rounded diet. The changes these nutrients create within the body (increased satiety, lower caloric absorption, and so on) appear to support long-term weight maintenance and can possibly help promote weight and fat loss.
Each type of fruit may have different effects on body weight, depending on its nutrient and phytochemical structure. But if you eat several servings of fruit per day and forgo added sugars from other sources, you may actually experience better outcomes when it comes to your body composition.
This goes against modern advice to eliminate all sugars from your diet if you want to lose fat or gain lean body mass.
But this research study begs to differ. Among a cohort of 459 healthy men and women, the authors found that “consuming a diet high in fruit, vegetables, reduced-fat dairy, and whole grains and low in red and processed meat, fast food, and soda was associated with smaller gains in BMI and waist circumference.” So while fruit isn’t a hidden savior for helping drop ten pounds fast, incorporating whole fruits into a balanced diet and exercise routine can certainly boost your success.
And that is why we say it all the time around here: don’t rely on B.S. (Bro Science) when trying to improve your body composition. If you want to eat less sugar, cut out the junk food and sweets … not the fruit. Otherwise, you may be doing your body more harm than good in the long run.
Scott Christ is a health and wellness entrepreneur, writer, and website strategy consultant. He's also the creator of the world's healthiest plant-based protein powder.