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Is Fruit a Healthy Choice?

Fruit has been getting a bad rap for quite a while now. It's the main food group people I train bring up when they ask about what to cut back on. I'm going to tell you the same thing I tell my clients. The problem isn't the fruit; it's what people are being told about it that's the problem.

The most recent batch of misinformation started with the United States government in 1992. That's when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the food pyramid. On that chart, it said Americans should get "2-4 servings of fruit per day."

The problem was, the chart didn't have a definition of exactly how much fruit was in a serving. It also didn't distinguish between how many servings for men or women.

Without any clear directions, people were eating as little as 4 large strawberries (1 serving) to as much as 4 large slices of watermelon (8 servings) and everyone thought they were eating the proper amount.

Then fruit was vilified throughout the 1990s by the low-carb craze. Instead of eating healthy servings in moderation, people stopped eating it altogether and substituted higher fat and lower fiber options. We all know that didn't help; Americans just kept getting fatter.

In 2005 two significant things happened to start rehabilitating the image of fruit. First off, the low-carb craze finally started to subside. The majority of people on it weren't losing weight, and less than half the ones who did weren't able to keep it off for more than a few months. Healthy carbs like whole fruit were put back on the menu.

The Revised 2005 Food Pyramid The second thing that happened was the revised USDA food pyramid. In the new one, the generic '2-4 servings of fruit per day' was replaced with specific recommendations for men, women and children. In a nutshell, women should aim for 1.5 cups of fruit a day, while men should shoot for 2 cups. If you're exercising and burning more calories, it's suggested that those numbers go up even higher.

Now, before you go crazy eating fruit, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Whenever I talk about fruit, I'm talking about the whole fruit, NOT fruit juice. That's where even the updated food pyramid falls short. It says, "any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, or pureed."

If you want truly healthy servings of fruit, you won't pay attention to that bit of advice because there are three major problems with it.

First, fruit juice tends to be much more "calorie-dense" than whole fruit. One whole large orange has about 86 calories and 4.5 grams of fiber. A small 12 oz. glass of orange juice has twice the calories (about 167) and less than 1 gram of fiber. Drinking fruit instead of eating it typically doubles or triples the calories while eliminating much of the healthy fiber.

Second, canned fruit is often packed in "syrup" to make it taste better. Syrup is a marketing word for added sugar. There's already plenty of sugar (as fructose) in fruit without more being poured on top. Canned fruit can be healthy, just be sure to buy the ones with nothing added.

Finally, be very careful before eating dried fruit. A medium-sized banana has 107 calories, 14 grams of sugar and when cut up fills about a cup. But, if you were to eat a cup of dried banana chips, that has a whopping 436 calories and more than half your daily allowance of sugar, 30 grams.

To make it even worse, many companies add salt or mix fattening foods like chocolate, coconut or salted nuts in with bags of dried fruit. If you're in a situation where dried fruit is the only convenient source of fruit, eat it sparingly; avoid mixing it with unhealthy extras and pay close attention to the total calories and serving size.

Now that you know go out and enjoy some fruit today!

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Updated 2/29/2012

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  • When we wrote this article in 2007, drinking juice was a problem. In 2012 it's gotten worse.

    A study conducted by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital found that 1 in 3 kids drink too much juice.

    What's more frightening is that 35 percent of the people surveyed said their DOCTORS told them to give the juice to their children.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics (expert child doctors) recommend children get no more than 1 cup of juice a day. In the survey, 1 in 3 parents reported their children drank 2 or more cups a day, TWICE the acceptable amount.

    Too much juice can lead to early tooth decay and obesity. DO NOT give children more than a cup of juice a day thinking it's a healthy option.

    This is a wake-up call for parents AND doctors. More than a single cup a day for children under 6 is a BAD idea!

    The survey was conducted by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital - National Poll on Children's Health. The survey was administered to a nationally representative sample of 606 parents with a child ages 1 to 5.