This is a conversation I had the other day with an older athlete at my gym:
He starts by proudly announcing, “I haven’t eaten a banana since 1999.” I respond inquisitively, “Oh do you not like them?” and he replies, “No I love bananas; they just have too much sugar!”
In recent years, fruit, especially bananas, has been villainized for its sugar and carbohydrate content. Yes, fruit has carbohydrates in the form of sugar, but the nutrients far outweigh these factors. Plus, almost every cell in the body runs off glucose (sugar) so eliminating one of the most natural sources of this nutrient seems senseless. Glucose is especially important for athletes as roughly 80% of glycogen (the storage form of glucose in humans) is stored in skeletal muscles and utilized for exercise. Glycogen storage capabilities in muscle also increases with increased activity levels, further highlighting the importance of ingesting fuel sources that replenish these stores.
Glycogen stores are especially important for athletes, as glycogen is the fuel that allows an endurance athlete to run long distances, a soccer player to repeatedly sprint up and down the field, or a weightlifter to do a few sets of back squats. Carbohydrate consumption is what replenishes these glycogen stores after a tough match or challenging workout session. In terms of carbohydrate intake, fruit is one of the most natural and beneficial sources of it. Carbohydrate requirements can be as high as 8-10 g/kg of body weight per day for endurance athletes and 5-10 g/kg of body weight per day for strength and sprint athletes (Baechle 2008). Thus, fruit serves as an easy and convenient source of these carbohydrates and can provide the most bang for your buck as highlighted by the benefits listed below.
Benefits of Fruit:
Consuming fruit provides fiber which is helpful in promoting satiety (feelings of fullness).
Doesn’t Impede Weight Loss
One 12-week study studied the effects of grapefruit consumption in weight loss. The group that ate fresh grapefruit lost 1.6 kg, the grapefruit juice group lost 1.5 kg, and the grapefruit capsule group lost 1.1 kg, compared with the placebo group (no grapefruit consumption) who lost 0.3 kg.
While weight loss is a very complex and multifactorial process, it is evident that fruit consumption does not hinder the process or promote additional weight gain. Factors related to fruit intake and obesity are highlighted in Figure 2 of this article.
Vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals
An orange can provide 100% of the recommended vitamin D intake.
Fruits also provide phytochemicals, which are compounds naturally found in plants. These pigment rich compounds in colorful fruits could be helpful in improving cardiovascular health and decreasing one’s risk for cancer. (Dennett 2019).
Slow, controlled effect on blood sugar.
Consumption of fruit actually has an improved impact on blood sugar levels, even in people who have diabetes.
The same study that showed grapefruit’s positive effect on weight loss also demonstrated a similar effect on blood sugar. Groups that consumed grapefruit displayed much lower insulin levels two hours after fruit consumption, highlighting the fruit’s slow, controlled effect on blood sugar.
Promotes a healthy gut microbiome
In terms of how much fruit an individual should consume, it comes down to their activity level. Just as studies have shown that higher exercise levels increase the glycogen storage capability of muscles, it can be assumed that low exercise levels and inactivity reduces the storage capability of muscles. Thus, if someone is less active, their overall carbohydrate and fruit requirement would most likely be lower than a highly active individual.
Worried about weight gain from eating too much fruit? As with any food, consuming too much can lead to weight gain. To exceed the recommended daily allowance for calories by consuming only fruit, a person would have to eat 15 apples, 18 bananas, and 44 kiwis in a day (FDA). Yet in 2013, the CDC reports that only 13.1% of Americans hit the daily recommended of 2-5 servings of fruit per day. These numbers suggest that the odds of someone eating too little fruit is much more likely than someone eating fruit in excess.
Another important point surrounding the restriction of fruit and overall carbohydrate intake is that limiting intake may be counterproductive in terms of energy levels and cravings. Reducing fruit intake due to its high sugar content is counterproductive because cravings may increase as the result of inadequate carbohydrate intake to physically and metabolically fuel your body. The body is incredibly adept at responding to what it feels it is lacking and cravings are a prime example of this. Even on more sedentary days, the body still needs carbohydrates to fuel the brain and muscles, as well as carry out normal metabolic functions like breathing and temperature regulation.
Diets and weight loss schemes in today’s world revolve around fads and drastic changes, sometimes in the form of the complete elimination of a food group. Fruit has been an unfortunate victim of this complete elimination because of misconceptions surrounding the carbohydrate/sugar content. Everyone wants to rely on a new diet (paleo, keto, cleanses, etc) to help them lose weight but the reality is that weight loss comes down to consistency in maintaining a caloric deficit while still getting proper nutrition. Proper nutrition includes consuming a variety of whole food sources, fiber and macronutrients and micronutrients in proper doses. Fruit checks all of these boxes. Attaining desired nutrition results starts with committing to a simple habit that you can be consistent with, not eliminating a food group and hoping that will lead to change.
So, eat that banana! Consuming a banana before, during, or after a workout will stabilize blood sugar levels, increase energy, promote adequate recovery and may even reduce cramps due to the potassium content. There is no reason to fear fruit if it is consumed according to activity levels. The nutrients found in fruit and the energy it provides makes it a valuable source of carbohydrates that one can enjoy every day and reap the many benefits of doing so.
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