Pick the Best Fruit for Your Health

Rachel Meltzer Warren

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With everything fruit has going for it—natural sweetness, beautiful colors, tons of nutrients—you’d think people would be eating loads of it. But only 12 percent of Americans get the 1½ to 2 cups of fruit that health experts recommend adults eat every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And all types of fruit are good for you. “Fruits contain important vitamins, minerals, fiber, and plant chemicals such as antioxidants,” says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D.N., chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida.

These nutritional compounds (and probably others) work together to help reduce the risk of chronic diseases and control weight. For example, an analysis of studies published in 2017 in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that every 7 ounces of fruit eaten daily was linked to a 10 percent reduction in heart disease risk and an 18 percent drop in stroke risk.

“You’ll get the most health benefits if you eat a variety of fruits,” Wright says. But if you’re aiming to reach a particular nutritional goal, there are certain fruits you should keep in regular rotation.

Boosting Antioxidants

An antioxidant is a substance that protects cells from damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable molecules created during the process of oxidation during normal metabolism. Free radicals may play a role in the development of stroke, heart disease, cancer, and other diseases.

Some experts say that deeply hued fruit—especially red and purple ones, such as berries, plums, and cherries—will give you the biggest antioxidant bang for your bite. Fruits like these contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, compounds that have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease. And a study published in The BMJ in 2016 found that people who ate the most anthocyanins, mostly from berries, gained less weight over a 24-year period than those who ate the least.

That doesn’t mean that other fruits aren’t good sources of antioxidants. For example, citrus fruits are rich in vitamin C, apricots and cantaloupe contain beta carotene, and apples have quercetin.

“Despite the umbrella name, different antioxidants act differently from one another in which radicals they quench, in which cells and tissues they work, and in what functional benefit they provide,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., a research professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. “If you want to get the amount and diversity of antioxidants that Mother Nature provides, you have to eat several servings of different kinds of fruit daily.”  

Increasing Potassium

Potassium helps your body’s nerves and muscles, including your heart, work properly. Eating foods that are good sources of potassium can help your cardiovascular health in more ways than one. “Potassium helps offset the negative impact of sodium,” Wright says. Eating foods that contain more potassium and less salt can help control high blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease, according to the CDC.

On an average day, less than 25 percent of men and 1 percent of women get the recommended 4,700 mg of potassium per day. All fruit has some potassium, but including higher-potassium fruit like bananas (422 mg in a medium-sized one), cantaloupe (427 mg per cup, cubed), and peaches (332 mg in a large one) will help get you closer to that daily goal. 

Fighting Disease

Research on how specific fruits protect against certain diseases or help people manage certain conditions highlights the range of their impact.

Adding a small apple a day to your diet, for instance, may reduce the risk of stroke by about 42 percent, according to a study published in the journal Stroke. Eating citrus fruit is linked to a lower risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, one of the most common types of esophageal cancer, according to a 2018 review study from China published in the journal Medicine.

Tart and sweet cherries can decrease oxidative stress and inflammation, potentially benefiting people with diabetes, arthritis, and other conditions. That’s according to researchers from the Department of Agriculture who reviewed 29 studies and published their results in the journal Nutrients in 2018. And researchers in Taiwan found that eating two kiwifruits per day over four weeks lessened constipation in adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

Increasing Fiber

Fiber is linked to improved digestion as well as a reduced risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and even certain cancers. It can also help you eat less.

“Fiber helps with satiety, which is important in maintaining a healthy weight,” Wright explains. But only about 5 percent of Americans get the 25 to 30 grams per day they need.

Several fruits are high in fiber. Guavas have 9 grams per cup, raspberries and blackberries have 8 grams per cup, a large Bartlett pear has 7 grams, and a cup of sliced kiwifruit has 5 grams. Fruit juice has very little or none. 

Controlling Blood Sugar

When health experts say to eat less sugar, they’re talking about added sugars like those found in cakes, cookies, and soft drinks. But some people assume the “eat less sugar” directive applies to fruit, too.

What’s different about fruit—in addition to the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it contains—is its fiber. It minimizes the effect that fruit’s natural sugars have on blood sugar levels.

Even people with diabetes don’t need to fear fruit. “It’s a nutritious way to satisfy your sweet tooth,” Wright says. In fact, a 2016 analysis of 23 studies found that eating fruit, especially berries, lowered the risk of type 2 diabetes.

And a 2017 study showed that eating fruit daily reduced diabetes risk by 12 percent. For people who had the disease, eating it three days per week reduced the risk of diabetes complications by up to 28 percent.

Some people with diabetes manage their blood sugar by counting the grams of carbohydrates they consume per day. Sugars are carbohydrates, and some fruits are higher in carbs than others. If carbs are a concern for you, low-sugar fruits include starfruit, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, watermelon, and grapefruit.

Don’t fear natural sugars. The fiber in fruit minimizes the effect they have on blood sugar levels. 

Easy Ways to Add Fruit to Your Diet

In addition to throwing an apple in your lunch bag or slicing a banana on top of cereal, here are some other ideas for increasing your fruit intake that you may not have thought of:

Make it your first stop for a sweet. If you want dessert, reach for a peach or apple before digging into a piece of cake. The fruit may satisfy the craving on its own. If not, go ahead and have the cake knowing that you got in an extra serving of fruit.

Fill up a bowl. Either keep a bowl of whole fruit on your kitchen countertop or one of cut fruit in the refrigerator. If it’s in view, you’ll be more likely to reach for it.

Add it to savory foods. Blueberries in a salad? Pineapple on pizza? Roasted pears as a side dish for chicken or pork? You just increased your fruit servings.

Swap in a fruit cup. When you dine out, ask whether you can have a side of fruit instead of french fries with your sandwich or hash browns with your eggs.

Toss them on the grill. That adds a smoky depth to fruit such as peaches, plums, pears, mango, and pineapple.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the July 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.

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