How much fruit should I eat?
Q: I’m confused about how much fruit to eat and I think I might be having too much. Is it best to just cut it out because of the sugar? I keep hearing different views on this. Thanks, Lisa
Often people have completely opposing views on fruit – either they completely avoid it (typically because they are concerned about the sugar content) or they eat like a fruit bat – so it’s no wonder people are confused when they keep hearing different opinions.
Fruit naturally contains sugar (fructose), fibre, water, vitamins (particularly vitamin C), minerals and antioxidants. Fresh fruit is nutrient-dense real whole food. The sugar in fruit is a source of energy, however fructose is only able to be taken up and metabolised by cells of the liver.
The body is very capable of handling a small amount of fructose when it is packaged up with micronutrients and fibre (as
it is in fruit and vegetables), but our biochemistry is not designed for high fructose consumption – throughout evolutionary history we predominantly only consumed it when fruits were ripe seasonally.
There is a big difference between consuming fructose from processed foods (table sugar is 50 per cent fructose) and consuming some fructose from a piece of fruit, which also provides many other health-promoting nutrients (unless you have a medical malabsorption syndrome).
There is also a difference between choosing fresh fruit, and fruit juice or dried fruit. It is very easy to over-consume fructose when you drink fruit juice. For example, a glass of orange juice is equal to about four oranges, but not many people would eat four whole oranges in one sitting.
You also don’t get the fibre that is naturally present in whole fruit when you drink juice, and fibre helps us to feel full. While fibre is present in dried fruit, this is a more concentrated source of fructose that can easily be overconsumed – just picture the volume of 20 grapes versus 20 sultanas. Or three dried apricots versus three whole apricots.
The Ministry of Health recommends two serves of fruit per day for adults, with a serve being equal to one medium piece of fruit (such as an apple or banana), two small pieces of fruit (such as two small plums) or half a cup of fresh fruit salad.
In my experience, two pieces of fruit per day is a good amount for most people who tolerate fruit well. However, I see more and more people who don’t tolerate fruit well. One in three adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) malabsorb fructose (the sugar in fruit). Fructose malabsorption can cause symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain and changes to bowel motions (diarrhoea or constipation). It can be diagnosed using hydrogen/ methane breath-testing or tolerance can be tested via an elimination diet.
Yet I also see many people who aren’t fructose intolerant but they seem to digest fruit much better when they only consume it in the morning on an empty stomach.
While there is no known scientific mechanism for this, I have seen this work for many people over my almost 20 years in clinical practice. So if you find you experience digestive symptoms when you consume fruit, you may like to try this to see if it works for you.
Always listen to your body and do what nourishes you. If you don’t tolerate fruit well, amp up your vegetable intake as vegetables also contain fibre, vitamins, minerals and plenty of wonderful antioxidants.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional. See drlibby.com