There is endless medical misinformation being dispensed in this pandemic moment. “Don’t take ibuprofen” or “hold your breath for 10 seconds to see if you have the coronavirus” or “drink some colloidal silver” are just a few among them (with potentially even worse suggestions coming from even more dubious sources).
But even before all of this went down, people adhered to weird health-related directives. Perhaps most famously, we’ve all casually tossed around the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” And really, what the hell? We only say that because it rhymes. The “apple” part has literally nothing to do with it. You could replace it with anything! “A pint of vodka a day keeps the doctor away” sounds just as catchy. (Also: Still not true.)
So what’s the deal? Do doctors really just love apples? What if I only ate apples? Let’s do some freaking math.
Two thousand calories per day is the USDA standard, though depending on age, gender, activity level and other factors, we may need more or less. But let’s just use 2,000 calories as our figure. In order to achieve that caloric need in apples alone, with an apple averaging 95 calories, you’d need to eat 21 apples a day.
According to Health.gov, a 2,000-calorie diet requires 46 grams of protein and 130 grams of carbohydrates. Twenty-one apples a day would leave you at a 25-gram deficit for protein, and a surplus of 395 grams in carbohydrates.
The calories and carbohydrates in apples come primarily from sugar, at 19 grams per apple. The World Health Organization recommends that sugar account for between 5 and 10 percent of our daily calories, maximum. For a 2,000-calorie diet, 5 percent would equate to 25 grams of sugar. Normally, these sugar measurements refer to the amount of added sugar in our diets, either through processed foods or natural sugar sources like juice or honey. Fruit generally gets an exception because it’s fibrous, allowing our body to more slowly process the sugar. But if you were just eating apples, you’d still be taking in 374 additional grams of sugar per day, likely cancelling out that wiggle room fiber provides for fruit.
It would also make you deficient in a ton of essential vitamins and micronutrients that keep you happy and functional. You’d meet your daily need for vitamin C, but you’d only hit 20 percent of a few other vitamins at best. This, combined with the lack of adequate protein and complete absence of fat, would probably make you spiral into poor health pretty quickly.
Recently, my colleague Andrew Fiouzi attempted a week of a fruit-only diet. While diversifying his fruits helped him consume most micronutrients (except B-12), he was still missing out on protein. As such, Dana Hunnes, a clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, warned him that muscle loss and changes to hair and skin could happen within a week or two. After a few months without protein but with sufficient calories, a person risks developing kwashiorkor, and at that point, you wouldn’t even want to “keep the doctor away.”
Obviously, an apple-only diet is just not a good idea. But where does the “apple a day” theory come from, anyway? The saying is thought to have originated in Welsh folklore, and first appeared in print in the mid-1800s as a children’s nursery rhyme of sorts. Basically, we’ve all been repeating a poem for children as dietary advice.
Although it’s pretty much been debunked that eating an apple every day keeps you healthy, it’s worth pointing out that isn’t by any means a bad habit. If you could manage to eat an apple instead of, say, a bag of chips as a snack every day, you’d be making a healthier switch. But that’s pretty much true of any fruit or vegetable. Do not let the Big Apple lobby fool you!