When talking about a healthy diet, fruits and vegetables are often lumped together—as in “Eat your fruits and vegetables!” You may interpret that to mean fruits or vegetables, especially if you are the kind of person who tends to shy away from fruits in favor of vegetables, or vice versa. But you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not eat (at least) an apple (or other fruit) a day.
Fruits and vegetables have much in common, of course. As plant foods, they provide lots of vitamin C, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals, along with fiber. And they’re rich in carotenoids (such as beta carotene) and other phytochemicals that have antioxidant and other potentially beneficial effects.
But just because fruits and vegetables are grouped together as “produce,” that doesn’t mean they have the same composition or health effects. For example, hesperidin and limonene are key compounds abundant in citrus fruits but not in vegetables. The top five sources of the carotenoid lycopene are all fruits: guava, watermelon, papayas, pink grapefruit, and tomatoes (yes, tomatoes are technically fruits).
And while anthocyanins—the pigments that give plant foods a purplish hue—can be found in purple potatoes, purple cauliflower, purple kale, and purple carrots, how often do you actually find such vegetables in the market or on a menu? It’s much easier to get these antioxidants by eating blueberries, blackberries, cherries, strawberries, red and purple grapes, plums, and pomegranates.
Nutrition studies often look at fruit and vegetable intake as one entity, but many have analyzed these food groups separately or have focused on fruit alone. Most of the studies are observational, however, and cannot prove cause and effect. Produce eaters tend to eat healthy diets overall and have other healthy habits, and it’s hard to tease apart such factors in studies, even though researchers try to adjust for total diet, exercise, body weight, and other variables.
Still, here are some findings from recent years that suggest that fruit, in particular, has a range of health benefits.
- Hypertension. In a large Japanese study in the Journal of Human Hypertension in 2011, people who consumed the most fruit (most commonly citrus, followed by apples, grapes, and watermelon) had the lowest risk of developing high blood pressure over four years.
- Strokes. A 2014 review of 20 studies, in Stroke, found that fruits, especially citrus, were more protective against strokes than vegetables, with an extra 7 ounces of fruit a day linked to a 32 percent drop in stroke risk. Pears and apples may also be especially protective.
- Diabetes. In a 2013 study in BMJ, people who ate at least three servings a week of blueberries, grapes, apples, and certain other fruits had up to a 26 percent reduced risk of diabetes, compared to those who rarely ate these fruits. Fruit juice, however, was linked to increased diabetes risk (it has a higher sugar concentration). What if you already have diabetes? A 2013 study in the Nutrition Journal found that eating fruit (at least two servings a day) did not affect blood sugar control in overweight people newly diagnosed with the disease.
- Weight management. Fruits (and vegetables) are commonly promoted for weight loss, since their high water and fiber content make them filling. But there’s no good evidence that eating more of them actually helps, unless people make an effort to cut back on calories elsewhere. Reassuringly, several studies have found that increasing fruit intake does not cause weight gain. And in one study, people who ate two or more servings a day lost just as much weight over 12 weeks as those who limited fruit intake. A few years ago, fruit got a boost when Weight Watchers assigned it zero points, meaning you can eat as much as you want. But don’t go overboard. If you already eat a lot of fruit, stuffing yourself with even more may undermine your weight loss efforts, the Weight Watchers website warns.
- Muscle health. Interestingly, fruit may help prevent age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), according to a 2014 study from Korea in Age and Ageing. Of 1,900 people 65 and older, those who ate the most fruit (about two servings a day, on average) were at lower risk for sarcopenia than those who ate the least (less than one daily serving).
- Cancer. Though the link between produce and cancer has been surprisingly hard to prove (see box below), some studies suggest that fruit may help prevent certain types. For example, an analysis of 24 studies, published this year in the European Journal of Cancer, linked fruits (but not vegetables) to a reduced risk of stomach cancer. Other studies have linked fruit, in particular, to reduced risk of bladder, urethral, and esophageal cancers—and both fruits and vegetables to reduced risk of lung and colorectal cancers.
- Longevity. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that Swedish people who ate at least one fruit a day lived 19 months longer, on average, than those who ate no fruit.
Fruit is typically high in sugar, notably fructose. Some research suggests that large amounts of fructose can adversely affect blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and weight. But fresh fruits supply only a small fraction of the fructose Americans consume (the biggest source is sugary beverages). Moreover, the sugar in fruit is accompanied by healthful nutrients and antioxidants, as well as fiber, which slows absorption of fructose. It’s highly unlikely that the fructose in even very sweet fruit could have any undesirable health effects.
A fruit eater’s manifesto
Just as you should consume a variety of vegetables, you should eat a variety of fruits. The USDA recommends at least 1½ cups of fruit a day for women and at least 2 cups a day for men. What counts as a “cup”? A small apple, medium pear, large banana, large peach, large orange; 2 large plums; 8 large strawberries; 32 seedless grapes; a small wedge of watermelon; ½ cup of dried fruit.
Not surprisingly, some people have given up on fruit these days because supermarket offerings are often flavorless. Fruit from large-scale commercial farms is often picked before it is ripe and doesn’t further soften or sweeten. Many fruits are also bred for their appearance and ability to ship and store well, rather than for flavor. An alternative is to buy locally grown fruit from farmers’ or other specialty markets.
What about organic fruits? Buying organic supports a more sustainable environment and reduces risks for farm workers, who otherwise are exposed to a lot of synthetic pesticides. But it’s unclear if organic fruits are more healthful for consumers. As research into this continues, keep in mind that fruits (and vegetables) are an important part of a healthful diet, no matter how they are grown. For more information about organic foods, go to tinyurl.com/WLorganic.