Editor’s Note: This post was updated on August 24, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on July 12, 2017.
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 fresh fruit?
All fruit contains natural sugar– in the form of fructose. Because of that, many “experts” suggest limiting your fruit consumption to small amounts (especially when paired with exercise) as part of a low sugar, low carb diet. They tout this diet 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. And there are published studies that eating fruit can help prevent weight gain when consumed in a healthy, balanced diet.
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 …
Why Eat Fruit?
First, let’s look at fruit from an overall health standpoint …
The benefits of eating fruit are well established:
- Fruits are a nutrient-dense food that provide a array of vitamins and minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals – like vitamin C, beta carotene, and antioxidants – all of which support a healthy balanced diet and may aid in the prevention of disease.
- A meta-analysis (review of multiple research studies) found strong evidence that eating more fresh fruit and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of death, particularly from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
- In one large study of 65,226 adults, those who consumed 7+ servings of fruits and veggies per day had a significantly lower risk of mortality compared to those with minimal to no fruit or vegetable consumption.
- Low fruit consumption is considered to be the fifth leading contributor to the global disease burden (after high blood pressure, smoking, alcohol use, and household air pollution)
So it’s clear that from a disease prevention and longevity standpoint, eating more fruit is definitely a healthy idea.
But why, though? What happens in your body when you eat a piece of fruit?
Let’s explore that a bit further …
What Happens To Your Body When You Eat Fruit
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. The natural sugar you get from a piece of fruit is not the same as industrial fructose added to processed products (high fructose corn syrup, for example). Processed products are often filled with empty calories, with little nutrition.
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 “healthy” bacteria that help prevent weight gain.
Because of the essential nutrients you can get from fruit consumption (like Folate, Vitamin C, and Vitamin B1), 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 for weight maintenance.
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.
How Eating Fruit Affects Your Body Composition
We established that fruit are an essential part of a healthy diet because it provides key nutrients like vitamin C and antioxidants and fruit concusmption can help you maintain weight. But 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 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:
- Fruits have high water content and contain fiber, which can help keep you full longer and curb overeating.
- Eating fruit every day is inversely correlated to weight gain (in other words, fruit can help you prevent weight gain).
But be warned, if you are trying lose weight, you are better off eating whole fruits rather than drinking fruit juice fruit.
Fresh fruit is packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and, perhaps most importantly, fiber. Some researchers believe 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.
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.
The Bottom Line About Fruit
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 bares repeating.
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 a variety of fruits per day and forgo added sugars from other sources, you will get the nutrition your body needs and 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.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 healthy fresh fruit. Otherwise, you may be depriving yourself from important nutrition from fruits 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.