From an early age, fruits and vegetables are held aloft together on a pedestal: the ultimate in healthy eating, five daily portions of which will save your life. But all things being equal, are they really of equal worth? Do five portions of watermelon do you as much good as five portions of spinach? Because when it turns out that a large strawberry fruit smoothie from a popular chain has more calories than your average fast food burger, we’ve clearly misunderstood something somewhere along the way.
Now, it goes without saying that fruit is still healthier than a pile of candy bars or potato chips, but if leafy greens are considered the penthouse of food groups and candy the musty basement, where exactly does fruit stand in the nutritional apartment complex of life?
First off, it’s important to understand that different fruits contain different combinations of each of the following types of sugar: fructose, glucose and sucrose (a combo platter of fructose and glucose). The main difference between fructose and glucose is that fructose is more lipogenic — that is, fat-producing — than glucose. The reason is that fructose doesn’t trigger the release of insulin and can’t be stored in muscle cells for use at a later time like glucose.
“Some fruits — for example, bananas and grapes — are higher in sugar, especially fructose, which is the most problematic sugar,” says Jason Boehm, a board-certified nutrition specialist. But the main reason fruit sugar is still regarded as healthier than, say, candy bar sugar is that it’s usually accompanied by fiber, “which helps our bodies slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream,” according to Boehm. “Some experts argue that the fiber and nutrients help to more quickly rid the body of this sugar load.”
But how much sugar — in how much fruit — are we really talking about, when it comes to our daily diets? The American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams of sugar per day for men, while the USDA recommends two cups of fruit per day for men ages 19 to 30. Here’s the thing, though: Depending on the fruit, these two guidelines may be incompatible, since just two cups of sliced bananas adds up to the maximum recommended amount, clocking in at 36 grams of sugar.
“Too much fructose from higher-sugar fruits like bananas can create problems like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease,” says Boehm. Furthermore, eating excessive amounts of fruit can lead to tooth decay, weight gain and increased triglyceride levels (which may contribute to heart disease and high cholesterol).
Boehm adds, “For most people, a banana a day isn’t going to create problems,” but he advises swapping out that banana for lower-sugar fruits like berries. “Berries contain a rock-star array of nutrients,” says Boehm. “Raspberries contain anti-inflammatory, antioxidant flavonoids like quercetin. Blueberries have the highest antioxidant punch of any fruit. And while avocados and coconuts aren’t really thought of as fruits, they’re a great source of fiber and hard-to-get nutrients like potassium.”
Essentially, like most everything else you eat that’s supposedly healthy, it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. “If you want nutrients but want to avoid sugar, ounce for ounce, leafy and cruciferous vegetables [broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.] will almost always be a better choice than fruits,” says Boehm. “That said, fruit is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. After all, 20 grams of fructose from a fruit packaged with fiber and nutrients will have a far different impact than 20 grams of fructose in a candy bar.”
In other words, nutritionally speaking, fruit may not be in the presidential suite overlooking the water alongside the leafy greens, but at least it’s in the same building, rather than with the candy in the grimy hostel across the street.