Life Healthy Eating

Monday 20 November 2017

Irish dietitian Orla Walsh: Can too much fruit be bad for you?

When it comes to fruit and vegetables, can we really have too much of a good thing? Dietitian Orla Walsh on the dos and don'ts of eating the natural sweet stuff

Orla Walsh
Orla Walsh

Fruit is regularly touted as a super-healthy snack option, and so it should be, as it's packed full of fibre and other nutrients that aid a healthy diet. Yet, a lot of fruit can be very high in sugar, and too much sugar, regardless of where it comes from isn't good for you.

What's in fruit?

Foods generally consist of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in varying degrees. Often, a food tends to be higher in one and lower in another. For example:

• Animal produce tends to contain lots of protein and some fat with minimal amounts of carbohydrate.

• Nuts and seeds contain lots of fat, some protein and lower amounts of carbohydrate.

• While plants tend to contain more carbohydrate than protein with minimal amounts of fat.

How much sugar is in your fruit?
How much sugar is in your fruit?

Carbohydrates, proteins and fat all contribute to the calorie or energy content of the food, with fat providing a little over twice the amount of calories for every gram.

Fruit is a good source of carbohydrate, and provides a little bit of protein and contains minimal levels of fat. Generally speaking, the more carbohydrate it contains the more calories within it (see the table pictured right). Fruit also provides water as well as other smaller nutrients such as potassium, vitamins and antioxidants. It's this matrix of nutrients that provides us with all the health benefits.

A lot of fruit can be very high in sugar
A lot of fruit can be very high in sugar

Do we need to reduce our fruit intake due to the sugar it contains?

Quite often people ask me about the sugar or carbohydrate content of fruit. Sugar is a carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is the fuel for our brain, and it feeds our activity too. What makes sugar and carbohydrate different is how long or short they are or put another way, how many sugar molecules they contain. When they are short in length, they are called simple carbohydrates - aka sugar. When they are longer, they are called complex carbohydrates. Under a microscope it's a bit like the difference between pearl earrings and a pearl necklace. The majority of carbohydrate found in fruit is sugar (simple carbohydrates).

World Health Organisation, (WHO) recommends that 'free sugar' intake - a type of simple carbohydrate - should account for no more than 5pc of your daily calorie intake. Based on average population diets, this equates to about 6tsp of 'free sugar' per day for a woman and about 8tsp for a man. The National Adult Nutritional Survey (2011) showed that on average a whopping 15pc of our calories come from 'free sugars'. That's three times too much! However, let's be crystal clear, fruit is not a free sugar. So it doesn't contribute towards this number.

'Free sugars' are sugars that have been added to foods, by the factory, cook or person eating the sugar. The 'free sugar' category also includes the simple sugars that are naturally found in honey and fruit juice. When you juice a fruit, you leave a lot of the healthiness of the fruit behind in the juicer. Therefore it's healthier to eat your fruit rather than drink it. Additionally when you drink your fruit instead of eat it, you can take in large volumes of sugar in one sitting. To put it in perspective, every two gulps contains about 1tsp of sugar. As many people have fruit juice with breakfast, they end up reaching their sugar quota before they leave the house in the morning!

It is only 'free sugars' that negatively affect our health. Although milk and whole fruit contain sugar, they are not included in this 'free sugar' definition as they're protected within the food and not as easily accessed. Therefore when health care professionals tell you to reduce your sugar intake, they are referring to 'free sugars' and not sugars that are naturally found within fruit and milk.

How to eat your fruit

The fundamental principle of healthy eating is giving your body what it needs when it needs it. Carbohydrate is your energy source. When it comes to carbohydrate, both simple and complex, it's important to ensure that it's drip-fed into our body - digested and released slowly - and not injected into our body - quickly digested and released into our blood stream. Therefore it's a good idea to eat your fruit whole and to enjoy your fruit with a source of protein or fat, as they slow down its digestion.

For example, you could eat: Berries with yoghurt or apple with peanut butter or try pineapple with cheddar.

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