A number of national and international health organizations laud the benefits associated with a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables and recommend that folks increase their consumption to reduce the risk of developing lifestyle-related conditions, including overweight and obesity.
Despite the myriad benefits, many health professionals often recommend that folks limit fruit intake when they’re trying to lose weight, and fitness “pros” may go so far as to suggest the complete elimination of fruit from the diet when trying to lose fat.
Often, recommendations for fruit intake get grouped together with vegetables, and this can lead folks to believe that the two are synonymous. It is fair to say that fruits and vegetables may not be identical in nutritional value, and as a result, they shouldn’t be lumped together in a single category.
For instance, vegetables typically contain fewer calories and carbohydrates per serving than fruits, which contain more naturally-occurring sugar. With that being said, steadily rising rates of overweight and obesity have far more to do with overconsumption of refined carbohydrates and added sugars than they do with eating too much fruit.
Understanding Nutrient and Energy Density
Nutrient density refers to the amount of key, healthful nutrients per calorie of food, and just like vegetables, fruits are nutrient dense, rich in important micronutrients (e.g., vitamins and minerals), fiber, and health-promoting, disease-fighting phytochemicals, which act as potent antioxidants that help combat free radicals and reduce oxidative stress.
Because whole fruits are also a very good source of dietary fiber and they have high water content, they are considered low-energy-dense foods, which means that they contain a relatively low amount of calories per unit of food.
All of these factors play a crucial role in optimizing health and weight management. In fact, some studies suggest that how much you eat daily is regulated by the weight of the food rather than by a certain number of calories.
Along those lines, researchers have found that when folks consume low-energy-dense foods, they feel satisfied earlier and those feelings of fullness persist for relatively longer periods of time—despite reductions in calorie intake. In other words, diets rich in low-energy-dense foods like fruits and vegetables allow folks to eat more food, which leads to greater feelings of satiety.
Energy density is defined as the relationship of calories to the weight of food (i.e., calories per gram). Foods like oils, bacon, butter, cookies, crackers, junk food, fast food, etc., are generally considered “high-energy-dense” foods (i.e., 4 – 9 calories per gram by weight); on the contrary, most fresh fruits are considered “low-energy-dense” foods (i.e., 0.0 – 1.5 calories per gram, by weight), as they tend to have a high water content and are very good sources of fiber, which are two important factors reducing energy density. Fiber itself has a relatively low-energy density, providing only about 1.5 – 2.5 calories per gram.
As mentioned, fruit is also a very good source of fiber, which can promote a healthy digestive tract and regularity, improve carbohydrate management (e.g., slowed gastric emptying), promote satiety, reduce calorie intake, and enhance weight loss.
Simply put, fiber is a nutrition all-star, and not surprisingly, researchers have linked low fiber intakes to increased risk for diabetes and obesity.
What’s more, studies consistently demonstrate that diets higher in fiber help with weight loss and weight management.
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Can Fruit Alone Promote Weight Loss?
Fruits are nutrient dense, low-energy-dense foods, rich in important phytochemicals, and packed with satiating fiber, but what does the research say? Is there any evidence that suggests that fruits can help promote weight loss?
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from Penn State University found that overweight women who focused on increasing their intake of low-energy-dense foods (i.e., fruits and vegetables) lost nearly 25% more weight over the course of one year compared to women who were instructed to follow a reduced calorie diet alone.
The women who focused on eating more fruits and vegetables ended up consuming MORE food (despite consuming fewer calories) and experienced greater satiety. The researchers concluded, “Reducing dietary energy density, particularly by increasing fruit and vegetable intakes, is an effective strategy for managing body weight while controlling hunger.”
In another study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, researchers found that greater consumption of fruits and vegetables during weight loss efforts is correlated to more weight and fat lost.
A number of other studies have found an inverse association between fruit and vegetable intake and body weight. In other words, folks who consume more of these low-energy-dense foods weigh less, and these studies demonstrate that advice to increase fruit and vegetable consumption is an effective strategy for weight management.
Further, researchers from the University of Alabama have found that folks who eat more fruits and vegetables are better able to maintain their weight loss progress after achieving their goal weight.
As you can tell, many of these studies group fruits and vegetables into a single category, but what about the role of fruits alone in fat loss and weight management?
That’s precisely what researchers from the University of Denmark set out to uncover in their review published in the journal Obesity Reviews, and to the dismay of militant health gurus, the overwhelming majority of the research suggests an inverse relationship between fruit intake and body weight.
In one study, researchers from the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota examined the dietary habits of over 1,800 overweight men and women for two years, and they found that increased fruit intake was associated with significantly decreased body weight.
In another study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, Dutch researchers analyzed the nutrition habits of 288 men between the ages of 50 and 65 for five years, and they found that decreased fruit intake was significantly related to increased body weight and waist circumference.
In a study published in the journal Appetite, researchers from Brazil compared the effects of adding fruit (i.e., apples or pears) or oats on calorie consumption and body weight in overweight women. Over the course of 10 weeks, the researchers found that women who added three daily servings of fruit to their usual diets lost over 5 times more weight than women who added oats, despite the same number of calories and fiber in the fruit and oats.
In a recent study published in Nutrition Journal, researchers from Denmark played devil’s advocate to see if removing fruit from the diets of participants would aid in weight loss. No such luck.
Not only did the researchers find that the low-fruit group (i.e., no more than 1 piece per day) didn’t lose more weight than the high-fruit group (i.e., 2 pieces or more per day), they found that the folks in the high-fruit group lost 47% more weight and 43% more inches from their waistlines than the low-fruit group.
Not All Foods Are Created Equally
The evidence seems abundantly clear that a diet containing moderate amounts of fresh fruit possesses tremendous health benefits and supports weight management, but just because a food is made with or from fruit does not mean that it provides equivalent advantages. With that in mind, the purpose of this report is to shine the light on some of those foods and ingredients that may appear to be healthy or marketed as such, but compared to their wholesome, unadulterated counterparts, not so much.
Before delving into these foods, it’s important to remind you that, in the grand scheme of things, your health, fitness, performance, and body composition are contingent on your entire body of “nutrition work”—not an individual food or single meal. In other words, there’s no “magic bullet.”
Instead of viewing foods in isolation as “good” or “bad,” think about weight management and “deep health” as the product of practicing healthy eating habits, creating a positive food environment, and choosing high-quality, nutritious foods in appropriate amounts relative to your goals and activity levels regularly and consistently over time.
Good nutrition takes practice, and just like getting better and mastering anything in life, it’s about progress—not perfection.
Start where you are and make small changes that you are ready, willing, and able to take on; focus on mastering those new behaviors one step at a time. With that being said, let’s get to those foods!
1. Fruit Juice
While food manufacturers might lead you to believe that fruit juice is closely related to whole fruit, researchers actually tend to include it in a category called sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB), which also includes sodas, and SSB have been linked to weight gain, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and dental caries (i.e., cavities).
Studies have shown that excess consumption of fruit juice (just 12 ounces/day is considered “excess”) is associated with higher calorie intakes, weight gain, and the development of cavities.
The evidence is so strong, in fact, that the Institute of Medicine recommends children reduce fruit juice intake as a strategy to prevent overweight and obesity, and professional health organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Heart Association recommend that whole fruits be used as an alternative to fruit juice.
Recent research fortifies the connection between fruit juice and weight gain. In one study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco recommend eliminating fruit juice in an effort to curtail childhood obesity.
In another study published in the journal Pediatric Obesity, researchers from the University of Virginia found that regular consumption of fruit juice at age 2 was associated with a greater risk of
becoming overweight by the age of 4, and they recommend that both pediatricians and parents discourage the consumption of fruit juice to promote healthy weight management in children.
In a recent systematic review published in the journal Critical Reviews in Foods Science and Nutrition, researchers from Australia gathered all of the available evidence (e.g., randomized control trials, cohort studies) with the goal of identifying the association between fruit and fruit juice consumption and weight management.
As was illustrated in the introduction, the researchers found that consumption of whole fruit led to weight loss and reduced the risk of weight gain by helping to control calorie intake. On the contrary, they found that consumption of fruit juice promotes weight gain, and their directive was to encourage the consumption of whole fruits and replace fruit juice with plain, filtered water.
Although savvy marketers cleverly lead you to believe that fruit juice is the same as whole fruit, this is simply not true; fruit juice is higher in both calories and sugar and lower in fiber than its whole fruit counterpart. For instance, four ounces of 100% apple juice has NO fiber yet has 13 grams of sugar and 60 calories. By comparison, a half-cup of sliced apples has 50% fewer calories (30), 58% less sugar (5.5 grams), and 1 ½ grams of fiber.
Similar comparisons can be made for other juices and fruits (e.g., grape, orange, etc.).
For example, a single medium-sized orange contains about 60 calories and 15 grams of carbohydrates, with 3 grams of fiber and 12 grams of sugar. An 8-ounce glass of orange juice, on the other hand, contains double the sugar, no fiber, and nearly twice as many calories. What’s more, you could down that glass of juice in less than half the time it takes to enjoy the whole fruit—that’s a natural form of mindful eating.
As mentioned, fiber is a nutrition all-star, and it promotes a healthy digestive tract, regularity, improves carbohydrate management (e.g., slowed gastric emptying), promotes satiety, reduces calorie intake, and enhances weight loss.
Fiber slows the rate of digestion and gastric emptying, and subsequently, blood sugar management,
energy levels, and feelings of fullness.
Unfortunately, most people don’t consume nearly enough dietary fiber, and swapping juice for whole fruits does little to help. According to American Dietetic Association, the average person consumes a paltry 15 grams of dietary fiber per day—only about HALF of the recommended daily intake.
As already mentioned, research has linked low fiber intakes to increased risk for diabetes and obesity.
Beyond sugar, calories, and fiber, research shows that the digestion of liquids (e.g., juice) occurs faster than the digestion of solid foods. In other words, drinking juice results in a much more rapid increase in blood sugar compared to consumption of whole fruit. Conversely, the fiber present in whole fruit limits the insulin response and increases satiety.
Along those lines, research also shows that liquids don’t tend to be as satiating as whole foods, and even when calories are identical between liquid and solid food meals, liquids leave people feeling hungrier and result in eating more calories in subsequent meals.
While consuming low-energy-dense whole fruits increases feelings of fullness and satisfaction and subsequently decreases calorie intake and reduces body fat, the same cannot said to be true with juices.
Research also shows that fruit juice may even alter nervous system signaling, resulting in dependence and habituation, which is associated with overconsumption and metabolic syndrome.
Heed the advice of professional health organizations like the Institute of Medicine and American Heart Association and swap the store-bought fruit juice for whole fruit.
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2. Dried Fruit
Unfortunately, dried fruit is not much better than fruit juice, and some of the very same concerns arise (e.g., portion sizes, added sugar). Cup for cup, dried fruit can have up to 8 times the number of calories as its fresh fruit counterpart. For example, a cup of grapes contains about 60 calories and 16 grams
of carbohydrates. On the contrary, a cup of raisins contains over 430 calories and a whopping 115 grams of carbohydrates, with 86 grams coming from sugar.
According to the USDA, over 63% of the calories consumed by the average American come from processed foods, including added sugars, refined grains, and added fats and oils.
Folks in America and other developed nations are consuming upwards of 15 pounds of sugar per year.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that consumption of refined carbohydrates (e.g., sugar) is closely related to obesity and various forms of chronic illness, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In fact, numerous studies have linked consumption of these highly processed carbohydrates to obesity.
According to Harvard researcher and professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology Dr. Frank Hu, “Refined carbohydrates are likely to cause even greater metabolic damage than saturated fat,” and “the time has come to shift the focus of the diet-heart paradigm away from restricted fat intake and toward reduced consumption of refined carbohydrates.”
Along those lines, in a recent epidemiological study, researchers analyzed nearly 90 years’ worth of data, and they found that “increasing intakes of refined carbohydrate concomitant with decreasing intakes of fiber paralleled the upward trend in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes observed in the United States during the 20th century.”
If it’s already starting to sound like a broken record, it’s just foreshadowing what’s to come: You are nearly always better off eating the whole fruit over dried fruit.
3. Fruit Smoothies
If your goals are to lose fat and improve your health, then you are probably well aware that you should eliminate sugary drinks like soda, sports and energy drinks, and even fruit juices (as mentioned
above). After all, a can of soda contains nearly 40 grams of refined sugar in most cases, doing your waistline no favors.
What may shock you, however, is that something that people reach for all the time to support their weight loss goal—a fruit smoothie—can actually have THREE TIMES MORE sugar than a can of soda if buying one of these so-called “healthy” beverages at your local smoothie shop.
These popular smoothie chains offer options that are supposed to help folks “trim down,” “shape up,” and “snack right,” yet these smoothies can contain upwards of 100 grams of sugar in a serving—and these are the SMALL sizes. As a point of reference, that’s a whopping 25 teaspoons of table sugar. You’d be hard-pressed to find that amount of sugar in one serving of anything—except for in a “healthy” fruit smoothie.
You’ve likely already seen a trend developing, and that is that these so-called healthy foods tend to contain added sugar, which, as previously discussed, can contribute to weight gain and health complications.
One of the more fascinating ways that these refined carbohydrates may fuel weight gain is by driving cravings and addictive-like tendencies.
In a randomized, crossover study published the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers compared the effects of liquid meals (i.e., smoothies) containing either slow-digesting (i.e., low glycemic starch) or fast-digesting cravings (i.e., high glycemic sugar) on hunger, cravings, and brain activity. They found that when study participants consumed the smoothie containing fast-digesting carbohydrates, they experienced significantly increased hunger and cravings.
Not only that, the researchers also took brain scans to see how the different types of carbohydrates affected the brain, and what they found was nothing short of astonishing.
After consuming the smoothie with fast-digesting carbohydrates, the participants’ brain regions associated with reward and craving were selectively stimulated, essentially hard-wiring the body to seek more and more. This study provides evidence that refined carbohydrates elicit hunger, food cravings, overeating, and weight gain.
What’s more, the majority of smoothie-shop smoothies are generally void of fiber and protein. While the benefits of fiber have already been extolled, optimizing protein intake plays an essential role in improving body composition, building muscle, improving satiety and controlling appetite, preventing weight regain, and boosting metabolism and fat burning.
In fact, compared to high-carbohydrate meals, high-protein meals more than DOUBLE calorie burn and fat oxidation.
A better option than high-sugar, high-calorie smoothie shop smoothies would be to make your own, and here’s a great template to build a delicious fat-burning fruit smoothie:
• 2 scoops high-quality protein powder
• 8 – 12 ounces low-calorie liquid (e.g., water, unsweetened almond milk, unsweetened green tea)
• 1 – 2 cupped handfuls of fruit (e.g., berries)
• 1 fistful of veggies (e.g., spinach, kale)
• 1 thumb-sized portion of healthy fats (e.g., nuts, nut butter, coconut oil, avocado)
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4. Fruit-Flavored Yogurt
While dairy seems to have gained a negative reputation in certain circles, a large body of evidence
has demonstrated that dairy consumption may contribute to increases in lean body mass along with losses in body fat (i.e., improved body composition), and what’s more, reduced-calorie diets may be further enhanced when dairy is a major component.
In one study published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers from McMaster University found that folks who consumed a dairy-rich (15% of total energy intake), high-protein (30% total energy intake) diet, they lost more body fat, belly fat, and trunk fat over the course of 16 weeks compared to individuals consuming a standard protein intake and either moderate (7.5%) or low (2%) levels of dairy. The high-dairy, high-protein group even gained lean body mass while losing body fat (and net body weight).
While dairy (e.g., Greek yogurt, yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, etc.) may indeed be a healthy option to include in one’s nutrition plan, it’s important to delineate plain, unflavored choices between sugar-sweetened versions, including the majority that are fruit-flavored, which typically contain added sugar and/or artificial sweeteners.
With regard to the former, the above sections have covered the potential health and body composition consequences of diets containing high amounts of added refined sugars. In addition, it may be worth pointing out that some sugar-sweetened yogurt contains high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Researchers have linked HFCS consumption to obesity and metabolic dysfunction (i.e., reduced carbohydrate tolerance and insulin sensitivity).75 HFCS, as well as other refined carbohydrates including sucrose, has been associated with fat accumulation and increased body weight, and some studies have found that HFCS may specifically lead to increased belly fat storage.
In one study published in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, researchers from Princeton University found that rats with access to HFCS gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.
The researchers concluded: “This increase in body weight with HFCS was accompanied by an increase in
adipose fat, notably in the abdominal region, and elevated circulating triglyceride levels. Translated to humans, these results suggest that excessive consumption of HFCS may contribute to the incidence of obesity.”
In lieu of adding sugar, some food manufacturers may opt for artificial sweeteners, which can reduce the calorie cost of the food while boosting sweetness. However, consuming artificial sweeteners may not be the sweetest option for your health and body composition.
For instance, there’s some evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners may lead to weight gain. In one recent study published in the journal Appetite, researchers compared the effects of feeding rats yogurt sweetened with either table sugar or the artificial sweeteners saccharin and aspartame on body weight and total caloric intake.
The researchers found that, compared to sugar, the addition of the artificial sweeteners to yogurt resulted in increased weight gain, despite similar total caloric intake among groups.
Based on evidence from animal studies, researchers speculate that the “consumption of products containing artificial sweeteners may lead to increased body weight and obesity by interfering with fundamental homeostatic, physiological processes.”
In other words, when you eat something sweet, the body anticipates certain nutritive qualities (e.g., calories). By reducing the correlation between the sweet taste and caloric content of foods (by using artificial sweeteners), researchers believe that this may drive weight and fat gain.
The impact of artificial sweeteners may extend to the gut as well. In a study published in Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Duke University researchers found that consumption of the artificial sweetener sucralose for 12 weeks alters the gut microflora by significantly reducing the amount of good bacteria (i.e., probiotics) in rats. Even after
a 12-week recovery period, the number of beneficial microbes still remained significantly depressed.
In a recent study published in the journal Nature, a team of researchers led by Dr. Eran Elinav from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that humans fed a commonly-used artificial sweetener (i.e., saccharin) for JUST 5 days demonstrated significant reductions in carbohydrate tolerance (i.e., glucose intolerance), as well as significant changes in the composition and function of their gut microbiome (i.e., gut dysbiosis).
This research is very important for numerous reasons. With regard to fat loss, the evidence that gut bacteria contribute to energy balance (i.e., weight management) is so strong that Dr. Patrice Cani and his colleagues at the Metabolism and Nutrition Research Group in Belgium have coined the term “MicrObesity” to describe the relationship between gut “dysbiosis” (i.e., an imbalance of gut bacteria) and obesity.
Research has even shown that gut dysbiosis can increase the number of calories you absorb from food.
With all of that in mind, when choosing dairy, it’s best to choose plain, organic versions whenever possible. If you prefer to add something sweet, by all means, please feel free to do so in the form of whole, fresh fruit.
5. Frozen Fruit
First off, there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with fruits that are frozen. In fact, depending on your geographical location (i.e., where you live) and the time of the year, buying frozen fruit may be an even better option than fresh produce.
Generally speaking, frozen produce is picked when it’s ripe, blanched (to stop the ripening process and kill off bacteria), and flash frozen (an effective preservation method) at their peak freshness.
While fresh fruits may have the highest nutrient density, unless you have your own garden or have year-round access to a farmer’s market, frozen fruits may be a superior, cost-effective option for many folks compared to off-season fresh fruits.
What’s more, frozen fruits may be more nutritious than fresh fruits when the latter have to be shipped over long distances (e.g., from Mexico to Chicago). In these cases, the produce is typically picked well before it’s ripe and arrives at the grocery store several days or weeks after it’s harvested. During this time, cellular respiration and oxidation can cause substantial nutrient degradation, which means that this supposedly fresh produce is likely to contain fewer nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals).
In one study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers from the University of California-Davis (UCD) examined the vitamin content (e.g., vitamins A, C, and E and riboflavin) in both fresh and frozen samples of strawberries and blueberries.
What’s particularly interesting to note is that the researchers harvested the produce themselves, which allowed them to control for myriad variables that may normally affect the produce. In addition, the same raw produce was used for
both storage conditions; in other words, there was no difference between the fruits beside the storage conditions (i.e., fresh versus frozen).
They found that the frozen fruits were not only comparable to their fresh counterparts, in several cases, they were higher in micronutrient content. For instance, frozen blueberries were higher in vitamin C content than the fresh samples, and over time, less vitamin C was lost in both frozen strawberries and blueberries.
The UCD researchers also found that riboflavin was well preserved in the frozen fruit, with levels comparable to the fresh-stored samples. Likewise, the frozen fruits retained as much, if not more, vitamin E than fresh-stored samples, and frozen blueberries contained significantly higher levels of vitamin E compared to fresh-stored samples.
Based on their analysis, the researchers concluded that freezing not only preserved equivalent amounts of vitamins compared to fresh fruit, in many cases, the frozen fruit contained quantities much higher than those of the fresh-stored samples.
In addition to assessing the vitamin content of frozen- versus fresh-stored fruits, in a separate study, the group of UCD researchers found that the mineral (e.g., calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron), fiber, and polyphenol content of the fruits were “well retained” in the frozen samples compared to the fresh fruits.86 They found no significant differences in mineral or fiber content, and they even noted that frozen blueberries had higher levels of polyphenols than the fresh-stored samples. The researchers concluded that frozen fruits represent “nutritionally viable alternatives” to fresh produce.
However, as you’ve already witnessed, it’s certainly plausible that a good thing can go terribly wrong, and this is precisely the case with frozen fruits with added sugar. You may have noticed this recurring theme throughout this report, and the same holds true with many versions of frozen fruit. In fact, a cup of frozen blueberries with added sugar contains over TWICE as many calories and over 200% more sugar compared to a cup of fresh or unsweetened frozen blueberries.
That same cup of sweetened frozen blueberries provides the equivalent of nearly 8 TEASPOONS of added sugar. That’s more than what’s commonly found in an 8-ounce serving of sugar sweetened beverages. By comparison, the American Heart Association recommends that men and women limit their consumption of added sugar to 9 and 6
While frozen fruit can indeed be a viable alternative to fresh produce, it’s crucial to keep an eye out for additives like added sugar.
6. Fruit Cups
This may be sounding like a broken record, but it bears repetition that attention be paid to added sugars, which are commonplace in store-bought fruit cups, canned fruit, jarred fruit cocktail, and the like. In its recent Scientific Report, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee(DGAC) identified added sugars as one if its five “crosscutting topics of public health importance.”
The Committee examined the evidence surrounding the potential health effects of added sugars, and the DGAC assessed that added sugar negatively impacts the health risks for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dental carries. The DGAC determined, based on the available evidence, there was a strong correlation between added sugars and negative health risks.
The DGAC specifies that folks should include more fruits without added sugars, and the Committee even went so far as to recommend that nutrition labels be updated to include added sugars. The FDA has also recently proposed similar changes to the Nutrition Facts label that would require manufacturers to include the amount of added sugars to the product packaging.
A 4-ounce serving of peaches (i.e., fruit cup) contains 80 calories and 18 grams of sugar. On the other hand, a half-cup of sliced peaches contains 63% fewer calories and sugar. The same fruit cup provides about 12 grams (or 3 teaspoons) of added sugar.
Similar comparisons can be drawn between fresh pears and those found in a fruit cup; in a half-cup serving, fresh pears contain half the calories and 55% less sugar. Again, the margin of difference in sugar is due to added sugar.
Canned and jarred fruit aren’t any better. In fact, a half-cup of canned pineapple chunks contains nearly 3 times as many calories and over 3 times more sugar than fresh pineapple. That’s over 4 teaspoons worth of added sugar.
Once again, whole fruit wins out, and you’d be best off swapping fruit cups for real fruit.
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7. Fruit Snacks
Chances are, while you might not consider packaged fruit snacks to be a
healthy snack for yourself, both you and your kids might believe that they’re a healthy snack for them. In fact, both you and your kids are likely bombarded with marketing messaging encouraging the consumption of fruit snacks.
In a recent report, researchers from the University of Connecticut Center for Food Policy and Obesity ranked how often children ages 6 to 11 saw snack ads in 2014 based on Neilsen syndicated data. The products that children saw advertised most were fruit snacks, seeing those adds, on average, nearly 100 times during the course of the year.
If you take a look at the ingredients list on a package of fruit snacks, you’ll see ingredients like sugar, corn syrup (i.e., sugar), and fruit juice concentrate, which, as previously discussed, might be better described as sugar. So, you have sugar, added sugar, and more added sugar.
Speaking of snacks, a number of recent studies have found large increases in snacking frequency and larger contribution of snacking to total calorie intake among children and young adults. Kids (and adults) are snacking more often—particularly on energy dense, nutrient-poor foods like these—and researchers believe this contributes to the
expanding obesity epidemic.
Real, whole fruit is a good source of fiber, which is something that you won’t find in fruit snacks. In the introduction, the concept of energy density was introduced. As a reminder, energy density is defined as the relationship of calories to the weight of food (i.e., calories per gram). As mentioned, both the fiber and water content of a food can heavily impact energy density.
Along these lines, most fruit snacks have an energy density of around 3.5 – 4. By comparison, fresh blueberries have an energy density of around 0.5—that’s a 600 – 700% difference! While the energy density of fruit snacks is considerably higher, the nutrient density, which refers to the amount of key, healthful nutrients per calorie of food, is substantially lower. Whole fruit is a nutrient dense source of numerous vitamins and minerals, fiber, and important health-promoting, disease-fighting, anti-aging phytonutrients.
Fruit snacks, on the other hand, are completely void of all of these naturally-occurring key nutrients. Although the packaging on fruit snacks often touts the content of certain vitamins (e.g., A, C, and E), it’s important to point out that these are not the vitamins inherent to real fruit. Rather, these are synthetic versions of vitamins that have been added during the manufacturing process; in other words, these are fortified foods.
Although fortified foods may serve a beneficial purpose in developing countries where malnutrition is prevalent, this practice may not be as beneficial in developed nations where nutrient dense foods (e.g., whole fruit) are readily available.
While researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health urge everyone to take a multivitamin daily, they don’t feel the same for fortified foods, saying, “Take a standard multivitamin every day, but stay away from heavily fortified foods.”
Furthermore, fruit snacks often include both artificial flavors, which have been previously discussed, and artificial colors. The consumption of artificial food dyes (e.g., Red 40) during childhood and adolescence has been linked to behavioral changes, including hyperactivity, and there’s some evidence indicating that children with ADHD (attentiondeficit/ hyperactivity disorder) may show above-average sensitivity to artificial colors.
In a recent study published in the journal PLoS One, researchers from the Canadian Centre for Neurobehavioral Science found that consumption of artificial food dyes led to hyperactivity and increased risk-taking behavior in young lab animals.100 Additional studies have found that the neurobehavioral toxicity effects of artificial food dyes may affect healthy folks as well. For example, in one randomized control trial, researchers from the Department of Child Health at the University of Southampton found that consumption resulted in increased hyperactivity in healthy children ranging in age from 3 – 9 years.
Once again, a much healthier, better option—for you and your children—is to choose whole fruit over heavily processed, sugar-laden fruit snacks.
Putting It Into Practice
With all of that being said, the evidence seems abundantly clear that a diet containing moderate amounts of fresh fruit possesses tremendous health benefits and supports weight management, however, just because a food is made with or from fruit does not mean that it provides equivalent advantages.
I hope that this article has helped to shine a light on some of those foods and ingredients that may appear to be healthy or marketed as such, but compared to their whole food, unadulterated counterparts, not so much. What’s more, we hope that you have found this to be a helpful resource in your
journey to improve your nutrition, health, and body composition.
Remember, it’s not a single food or meal that will make or break your body transformation efforts; it’s your entire body of nutrition work, and it’s a commitment to healthy eating habits, creating a positive food environment, and choosing high-quality, nutritious foods in appropriate amounts regularly and consistently over time.