You've been told since you were a kid how important it is to eat fruit. But is there such thing as too much? As a nutritionist, I've worked with clients on both ends of the fruit-eating spectrum: Some shunned fruit completely due to its carb and sugar content, while others loaded up on fruit because it's rich in nutrients. The reality is, the ideal amount lies somewhere in between these two extremes, and it varies from person to person. To help you figure out your own sweet spot when it comes to fruit, here are four important things to keep in mind.
Stick with two to four servings
As a general rule, you probably need somewhere between two to four servings of fruit a day. What's a proper serving? Either one cup, or a piece of fruit about the size of a baseball. But if your activity level varies from day to day, your fruit needs might change as well. For example, many of my female clients eat one serving of fruit with breakfast, and another as part of a daytime snack (a good go-to strategy!). But on days they have a tough workout, they may add a third serving, such as a small, pre-exercise banana. However, for active men, teens, and tall, younger women with active jobs, four servings a day tends to be about right. Some of my pro athlete clients need more than four servings a day, but that's not the norm for most of us.
Your fruit needs are based on your fuel needs
Here's why you shouldn't eat an unlimited amount of fruit, or even overdo it: While it may be packed with nutrients, fruit is also a major source of carbs. One medium apple, a cup of blueberries, and a small banana each contain about 20 grams. It's important to get a healthy amount of carbs in your daily diet, to fuel the activity of your cells. But when you eat more carbs than you can burn after a meal or snack, the surplus can either feed existing fat, or even increase your body fat stores. For this reason, your total carb intake—including nutrient-rich foods like fruit—should correspond to your fuel needs, which are based on your height, ideal weight, sex, age, and physical activity level.
The taller you are and the higher your ideal weight, the more of you there is to fuel, and therefore the more carbs you need. Men generally need more than women, younger people more than older adults, and active folks more than inactive individuals. (Men are on average taller than women, and even at the same height they have more muscle mass—two reasons they require extra fuel.) For example, if you’re a petite woman who mostly sits at work and exercises for 45 minutes five days a week, you don’t need as many servings of fruit per day as a tall, muscular man with a physically demanding job.
Since the carbs in fruit fuel the activity of your cells, when you eat berries, apples, and the like makes a big difference. Downing a huge fruit plate late at night while you’re watching TV or surfing the web (i.e., when your fuel demand is low) may be healthier than eating cookies or candy. But if you don’t burn off all those carbs, then—yep you guessed it—surplus city! So try to eat fruit before you're going to be more active, so you'll use the carbs for fuel. If you really enjoy eating fruit in the evening, at least try to limit your portion to, say, one cup of grapes (as opposed to three big handfuls).
The nutrients in fruit are worth the carbs (if you don’t overdo it)
While carbs are a consideration, it's also important to remember that fruit is chock-full of other key nutrients. Natural substances in fruit—including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and prebiotics—do wonders for your health. And the nutrients found in one fruit family, like berries, differ from those in apples and pears, stone fruits, melon, or citrus. So rather than limiting yourself to apples and berries only, aim for variety, and work in seasonal options.
Another thing: Don't freak out about the sugar. Even the strictest nutrition guidelines zero in on added sugar, not naturally-occurring sugar from whole, fresh fruit. That's because sugar found in fruit is unrefined, far less concentrated, and bundled with a number of other key nutrients. For example, one whole orange provides about 17 grams of carbs, around 12 of which are natural sugar. But that orange also supplies fluid, 12% of your daily fiber, nearly 100% of your vitamin C needs, B vitamins, potassium, and compounds like herperidin—which has been shown to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and act as an anti-inflammatory. In comparison, one level tablespoon of table sugar contains 16 grams of carbs, all from refined sugar, and is devoid of nutrients. In other words, fruit and refined sugar don’t belong in the same category.
So please, enjoy fruit as part of a balanced diet. If you’re strategic about the timing and amount, you won’t have to worry about these healthy plants causing weight gain or preventing weight loss, and at the same time you'll better protect your health.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.