I love fruit. In the summer, it’s my favorite afternoon snack, and I personally probably eat way more in one sitting than the average Jo. Something about cold, juicy strawberries, kiwi, and orange slices feels like the perfect way to quench my thirst, satisfy my “snackiness,” and hold me over until dinner. In fact, all the fresh, ripe fruit options are one of my favorite things about summer!
In today’s day and age, fruit has a bad reputation: “It’s high in sugar,” people say, “and carbs are bad.” I find that people especially hold this viewpoint with fruit juices, which seem to have found a place high up on the “do not consume” list, along with soda and chocolate milk.
Sugar, sugar, sugar. Everyone’s afraid of it, these days.
A few weeks ago I did a demonstration with a local health center about kale smoothies. The ingredients I used were kale, chia seeds, frozen peaches, and orange juice. One audience member asked a great question, which I think speaks to a common concern on the minds of many: “Doesn’t orange juice have a lot of sugar? Does using something so unhealthy kind of cancel out the kale?”
The short answer is “No Way!” But I also want to share a little more in defense of fruit, and the lowly glass of innocent orange juice.
First of all, foods that contain sugar aren’t necessarily “unhealthy.” I would only use the word “unhealthy” for non-food, dangerous chemicals — things that don’t grow in the ground, wouldn’t be eaten by someone in their raw form, and have been proven to cause disease: trans fatty acids, or aspartame for example. Sugar, on the other hand, is not toxic in and of itself; It’s a molecule that our bodies rely on for energy, regardless of whether it’s in the powdered white form or the freshly harvested blueberry form.
I do think it is important for people to recognize that we shouldn’t be eating only highly processed, high-sugar foods such as sodas and cake. We would feel pretty sick from doing that, and we’d probably get sick pretty quickly too. However, it is not harmful to eat refined sugar every so often. Savoring a slice (or two!) of your own birthday cake is part of enjoying life!
Likewise, fruits and fruit juices do have sugar in them, and we know that eating too much sugar can be harmful to a person’s health. But, so can drinking too much water, eating too much protein, or overdosing on Vitamin A. It’s also important to remember that fruits have a lot of other important chemicals, such as antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber (for whole fruit.) Despite what internet articles might suggest, eating a banana is not the metabolic equivalent of drinking a can of cola — not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional can of Pepsi.
Regardless of the sugar content of fruits and juices, though, I think it’s dangerous to label entire food groups as “off limits.” In the few days after my demonstration, I had quite a few more conversations on this topic. One woman had never made a kale smoothie, but she’d heard of them. The reason she never tried one herself, though, was because she thought smoothies were unhealthy because of their sugar content! As we spoke more, she shared that her usual snack choices were things like chips or cookies. She didn’t usually pack snacks with her, and generally her snacking resulted from what she called a “lack of will power” at work. I asked her if she’d ever considered packing some extra snacks in her lunch, and she said she was afraid it would make her gain weight.
Sounds a little backwards, huh? But this is such a common perspective!
The problem with the health status of Americans today isn’t that they’re eating cookies or chips — and it especially isn’t because they’re eating fruit. Rather, Americans are sick because they ARE NOT eating fruit. The quintessential vending machine patron would probably make a different choice if they gave themselves permission to snack and brought extra options with them in their lunch boxes. But in an attempt to avoid snacking (or sugary fruits) they end up snacking anyway, and usually on items they might not have chosen had they given themselves permission to eat at the first sign of hunger.
By avoiding smoothies because of their sugar content, a person is also avoiding all the other nourishing ingredients, like antioxidants, omega-3’s and fiber in the kale, chia seeds, and fruit.
In terms of the health of my patients, I really don’t care about what they are eating — be it steak, french fries, or cake. I care about what they aren’t eating — fresh fruits and vegetables, free range eggs, and fermented dairy.
With regards to nutrition, we need to eat more, not less.