While nutrition news seems to change from day to day, there is one thing we know for sure: The more fruits (and vegetables) people eat, the healthier they are, the longer they live, and the leaner they stay. It's a little trickier when you try to match individual fruits to specific diseases. But even then, research is beginning to sort out the differences. Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Sexy, gave us the scoop on the health benefits of fruit.
1. We know vegetables are good for us. But, aren't fruits loaded with sugar?
People often are confused between what and how much sugar is good or bad for them. The problem with sugar for most people is the glut of added sugars in processed foods. Americans are averaging up to 50 teaspoons a day of added sugars, from high fructose corn syrup to agave and honey. We need to seriously cut back on that junk. But the natural sugars in whole fruit come packaged with fiber and a wealth of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, with no cholesterol or fat and hardly any sodium. While diabetics still must manage how much and when they consume sugar of any kind, the rest of us can rest assured that whole fruit is a very healthy inclusion in the diet.
2. What about fruit juice?
You are far better off with the whole fruit than with the juice. People tend to not compensate for the calories they drink by eating less food later. One study found that women who drank an average of five servings of fruit juice a week had an 18% greater risk of developing diabetes than women who averaged 1 1/2 servings a week. Juice has none of the fiber and less of the phytonutrients of whole fruit, so it's not as good an option even as far as nutrition goes. You can have a glass of 100% real juice, but keep it small and not more than a few times a week.
3. Fruit is good for us because of all the vitamins and minerals in it, right?
A few decades ago, researchers studied and evaluated fruits (and vegetables) based on their vitamin and mineral content, such as vitamin C and potassium. That's important because vitamin C helps curb disease and even helps keep your skin youthful. Potassium helps lower the risk for high blood pressure. But we now know there is so much more offered up in a slice of watermelon or a bowl of berries. Thousands of phytochemicals have been identified, such as polyphenols, anthocyanins, etc, that act as antioxidants and even tweak our genetics to help our cells protect themselves against disease.
4. It seems like some fruits gain popularity, then fall by the wayside. Why is that?
You're talking about trendy fruits, such as acai, noni, or mangosteen. These pricey tropical fruits claim to regenerate muscles or help you lose weight, fight cancer or cure diabetes, boost energy or lower cholesterol. There is no research to back up any of these claims. All these expensive fruits do is drain your pocketbook. Often there isn't even that much of the fruit in the product. All the well-designed research on fruit has been done on conventional produce. Save your money and just buy - AND EAT! - fruit from your local supermarket's produce department.
5. Berries: Why are they good for us?
Every type of berry studied, from blueberries to strawberries, improves learning and memory, at least in animal studies. Granted, they each have a different benefit. For example, raspberries appear to help with balance, but not memory, while blueberries aid with memory. Cranberries help lower the risk for urinary tract infections. Berries are more than just antioxidant-rich snacks. Research from Tufts University shows that these little fruits regulate our genes! They turn on the cells' production of disease-fighting chemicals that then work 24-7 to protect the brain and all the body's tissues from damage. No wonder they improve cell communication, stimulate nerve cell growth, and enhance brain cell connections. Best of all, frozen is just as antioxidant-packed as fresh, so enjoy these nutrient gold mines all year around.
How much do you need? At least 1 cup several times a week of an assortment of berries.
6. Citrus: Why are these fruits good for us?
Citrus fruit is one of the most nutritious of all the fruits. A cup of grapefruit sections supplies your entire day's requirement for vitamin Mood-wise, vitamin C is important in boosting energy, since it helps absorb iron and maintain healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen to every cell in the body, including the brain. Without iron, your brain literally suffocates, leaving you groggy, depressed, too pooped to appreciate life, and totally unmotivated. The vitamin C in citrus also helps curb the stress response, lowering stress hormone levels and possibly reducing blood pressure. Oranges are brimming with folate (a B vitamin essential in brain and mood function), while all citrus are overflowing in phytonutrients, fiber, and potassium. Hundreds of different phytonutrients have been identified in citrus, with names like terpenes, flavonoids, coumarins, and carotenoids. Most of these phytonutrients protect the brain and improve memory.
How much do you need? At least one orange or grapefruit every day.
7. Tart Cherries: Why are these fruits good for us?
Tart cherries are used to make jam, juice or pies. They are not the cherries you typically eat fresh and definitely not maraschino cherries. Preliminary research shows tart cherries might help reduce muscle pain and reduce the signs of inflammation after exercise. In fact, a study from the University of Minnesota found that cherries, with their high amount of anthocyanins, were in the top 33 foods for highest antioxidant content, surpassing well-known leaders, such as red wine, prunes, and dark chocolate. These anthocyanins protect brain cells from oxidative damage associated with nerve damage, thus lowering the risk for memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer's disease, and even helping reverse brain aging. Finally, cherries might be useful for both sleep and memory. They are one of the few foods that contain melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep.
How much do you need? 1 cup of raw tart cherries or a 1/4 cup of dried tart cherries four times a week.
8. Watermelon: Why is this fruit good for us?
Watermelon is an excellent source of lycopene, a red pigment that lowers heart disease and heart attack risk. In fact, watermelon has more lycopene than do tomatoes - up to 20 milligrams in each two-cup serving. The lycopene in watermelon helps lower risk for inflammation, prostate cancer, urinary tract infections, skin damage, vision and bone loss, and possibly even weight gain. Watermelon also is low or free of cholesterol, fat, and sodium, and is a good source of arginine and citrulline, amino acids that maintain the blood vessels, increase nitric oxide, and improve blood flow to all tissues. Vitamins A and C in watermelon show promise in lowering risk for cancers of the esophagus, stomach, lungs, liver, cervix, colon, and pancreas. This fruit is a natural hydrator, containing 92% water, and a great source of potassium, magnesium, the antioxidant glutathione, and vitamin B6. The seeds are a rich source of protein, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
How much do you need? You need approximately 10 milligrams of lycopene a day or the equivalent of one cup of watermelon daily. Watermelon stored and served room temperature is higher in lycopene and vitamins than chilled watermelon.
9. Pomegranate: Why is this fruit good for us?
Called the "love apple," some suspect it was a pomegranate, not an apple, that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, while legend has it that humans become immortal by eating these seeds. They are not likely to turn a couch potato into Casanova; but they are rich in potassium, vitamin C, fiber, B vitamins, and phytonutrients like polyphenols, anthocyanins, and procyanidins They have three times the antioxidants of green tea, and might help lower the risk for inflammation, heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer's, cancer, damage to the genetic code, risk for erectile dysfunction and male infertility, and high blood pressure; and even help regress atherosclerosis, the underlying cause of heart disease. A phytonutrient, called punicalagin, speeds healing and builds collagen and elastin that plump and firm the skin.
How much do you need? Sprinkle a tablespoon or more into foods at least four times a week from Fall through Winter when these fruits are available, or use pure pomegranate juice throughout the year. Packaged seeds (POM Wonderful Arils) are available in the refrigerator section of select stores from October through January.