Is Fruit Healthy?

The idea that fruit is a health-giving food, or even that eating fruit is actually necessary for good health, is firmly entrenched in current dietary dogma. We’re told that we must eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily for good health, with some recommendations going as high as 10 servings. But is fruit healthy, and do we really need to eat it for good health? Several considerations could lead us to an answer in the negative.

What our ancestors ate

Any consideration of whether a particular food or certain quantities of that food are beneficial for health necessarily depends on whether humans evolved to eat it. While some primates, to whom humans are related, eat lots of fruit, humans have evolved independently for a couple of million years or so, depending on how “human” is defined.

Hunter-gatherers are those groups of people that live without agriculture, and researchers have studied them and their diets extensively.

Since the origins of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, agriculturalists have pushed hunter-gatherer groups into more marginal areas, so how close the contemporary hunter-gatherer diet and lifestyle is to that of our paleolithic ancestors is an open question.

With that caveat in mind, contemporary hunter-gatherers consume a diet in which, on average, meat provides 65% of calories, the rest coming from plant foods. Our paleolithic ancestors may have consumed even greater amounts of meat, since they didn’t live on marginal land, the human population of the world was small, and many more large, wild animals roamed.

Did they eat fruit, and are humans adapted to eating it? Modern fruit consumption is based on agriculture and preservation, such as canning or refrigeration, and those certainly didn’t exist in the paleolithic era, so it’s a good assumption that if they did eat fruit, they would not have eaten nearly as high a quantity of it as modern people.

Paleolithic fruit eating could have taken the form of gorging on it when it was abundant and meat was scarce, in which case, fruit wouldn’t have been available year-round as it is for us moderns.

I’ve lived in the tropics myself, and virtually the only fruit I saw people there eat was mangoes. Mangoes ripen over the space of a few weeks and if not eaten then, fall to the ground and rot, so for a few weeks time, everyone eats mangoes like they’re going out of style – which they are, in a sense.

Optimal foraging theory

Optimal foraging theory applies economics to an animal’s acquisition of food. Like any other economic good, time and energy must be used to acquire food, and an animal attempts to spend the least time and energy for the most reward, or the greatest return on investment.

It seems that in most cases, optimal foraging theory points to meat as the preferred food of humans, since it is high in calories and protein. Fruit is not. A single large animal could feed a group of humans for days, while a lot of fruit would have to be gathered to feed the same number of people, arguably entailing a lot more work. Even then, fruit wouldn’t provide enough necessary protein, assuming that enough fruit could be gathered, which seems unlikely except perhaps sporadically. Golden Delicious apples didn’t grow in groves back then.

So, both theory and evidence point towards the consumption of large amounts of meat during the Paleolithic era. Nevertheless, humans probably ate fruit when necessary, when they were hungry, no meat was to be had, and fruit was available.

But what was that fruit like?

Wild vs domestic fruit

These are wild bananas:

Wild bananas around Chiang Mai | Dokmai Dogma

They’re much smaller and contain less edible material than modern bananas, which have been bred to have high sugar content.

One modern banana provides about 105 calories, of which almost all comes from sugars. It provides only 1 gram of protein. And, since bananas are grown, shipped, and stored using industrial technology, we can eat as many bananas as we like.

If sugar is bad for us, it doesn’t seem likely that just because it’s in a banana, it’s good.

The same considerations apply to other fruits: modern fruit is larger and contains more sugar because it’s been bred to be so, and it’s grown using modern methods resulting in abundant output, and then transported from the tropics or other areas to the point of purchase. In paleolithic times, none of that applied.

Modern era

What about more recent eras, such as the 18th or 19th centuries? Obesity and other diseases of civilization were uncommon then, and if people ate much fruit, then perhaps we could say that fruit was healthy, or at least benign.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans did not eat very much in the way of fruits and vegetables. Meat was abundant, and even the poor ate plenty of it. Fruits and vegetables had a short growing season and were ripe for only a short period of time, and in the absence of refrigeration and transport, spoiled, as Nina Teicholz writes:

Even in the warmer months, fruit and salad were avoided, for fear of cholera. (Only with the Civil War did the canning industry flourish, and then only for a handful of vegetables, the most common of which were sweet corn, tomatoes, and peas.)

So it would be “incorrect to describe Americans as great eaters of either [fruits or vegetables],” wrote the historians Waverly Root and Rich­ard de Rochemont. Although a vegetarian movement did establish itself in the United States by 1870, the general mistrust of these fresh foods, which spoiled so easily and could carry disease, did not dissipate until after World War I, with the advent of the home refrigerator. By these accounts, for the first 250 years of American history, the entire nation would have earned a failing grade according to our modern mainstream nutritional advice.

What about apples – fruit, obviously – didn’t Americans eat them? Johnny Appleseed is famous for spreading apple trees around the country. But it turns out that much of the apple crop was turned into apple cider. Not only did cider provide alcohol, but it’s a way to preserve and concentrate apples in the absence of refrigeration and transport.

Sugar

Modern fruit is typically loaded with sugar, although there are some exceptions. As noted above, bananas are sweet, with about 93% of calories as carbohydrates, most of that sugar. Apples are similar in composition, as are pears.

Even if it is argued that fruit contains protective or beneficial elements, which may be true, all that sugar does little good other than as an energy source, and energy sources are not in short supply these days. Fruit is a poor source of protein as well.

Berries are somewhat of an exception, with raspberries for instance containing about 33% sugar as calories. Avocados are low in sugar as well, although they don’t usually spring to mind when most people think of fruit.

Modern fruits are big bags of sugar, having been bred to be that way. If we avoid sugar in other forms, it seems odd that sugar would be beneficial just because it’s in fruit. Sugar is a huge net negative for fruit in my opinion.

Phytochemicals and hormesis

Fruits (and vegetables) are thought to be healthy due to the phytochemicals, largely polyphenols, that they contain. Phytochemicals in turn may be beneficial because they stimulate hormesis, the process in which low doses of a toxin or other stress produce beneficial changes in our bodies.

However, coffee, tea, red wine, and chocolate all generally provide far more polyphenols than fruit. With the exception of chocolate, they have the added benefit of being entirely sugar-free, and even chocolate can be consumed without sugar or in low-sugar forms such as dark chocolate. So, if you want to consume polyphenols, and you consume coffee, etc., then fruit would be superfluous.

Teeth

Sugar rots teeth, and as we’ve seen, most fruit is loaded with sugar.

It could be argued, and I do argue, that any food that rots teeth isn’t meant for human consumption, that we have not evolved to consume it and remain healthy. Mainstream health authorities mostly deny this. But rotten teeth can be a serious health problem if untreated, leading to abscesses, pain, even death from septicemia, so evolution would certainly select for the ability to maintain healthy teeth. The fact that we can’t maintain healthy teeth today absent specialized care and treatment speaks volumes for the suitability of our food.

Fruit juice may be especially harmful in this regard, and it’s harmful in more ways than that.

Fiber

Fruit has lots of fiber. Don’t we need that?

Not really; in any case, it’s highly overrated.

Vitamin C

One of the few vitamins in which animal foods are relatively low is vitamin C, and fruits do contain vitamin C. However, a number of vegetables, such as red chili pepper and broccoli, contain more vitamin C than oranges.  So it’s not necessary to consume fruit to get abundant vitamin C. Besides vitamin C, fruit contains little in the way of other vitamins and minerals that can’t be found more abundantly elsewhere.

Summary

Humans likely did not evolve to eat much fruit, certainly not year round and not in the abundance that we do today. Further, whatever fruit that early humans did eat was lower in sugar than modern fruit.

Even in the modern era, it wasn’t until after World War I and the spread of modern refrigeration that people ate lots of fruit. Before that, fruit was seasonal and much of it (apples) was used to make alcohol.

Modern fruit is loaded with sugar, is low in protein, and appears to provide not a lot of added benefit compared to other foods.

Fruit isn’t necessary or even particularly beneficial, and certain aspects of it could be harmful. I rarely eat it.

PS: A healthier thing to rather than eating fruit is Dumping Iron.

PPS: Check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men.

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Leave a Comment:

24 comments
Gerald says October 29, 2017

Once again PD, you and I are aligned. Thank you for articulating the subject. I truly believe eating low carb high protein is the best diet to follow. It keeps me at 10% body fat that’s even if I indulge in alcohol on weekends. Whey protein and weight training along with meat is my go to along with supplements that both keep my insulin in check and my inflammation low. I feel tremendous at 50 plus. I see no slowdown. Please keep up the great articles. You are a great mentor

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    P. D. Mangan says October 29, 2017

    Thanks, Gerald!

    Reply
Nick says October 29, 2017

Great post. Can’t wait to check your link on fiber.

Who knew vitamin C is also available -albeit in very limited quantities- in fresh meat? Not me til very recently.

I went faunivore nearly 3 weeks ago. I may treat myself to some berries on my yogurt after a month. Because I do love berries on my yogurt.

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Nathan says October 29, 2017

The only wild non-tropical fruit I can think of that comes close to competing with modern supermarket fruits in sweetness and abundance is the blackberry. They are available for 2-3 weeks a year and unsurprisingly the plant is studded with thorns.

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Bill says October 29, 2017

PD, most of human evolution took place in the tropics or sub tropics – not in the temperate climate zones of the planet. And lots of plant species in these climate zones provide lots of large fruits all though the year. So I suggest that fruit has been a long term part of the human diet.

Denise Minger’s has a well researched lengthy article on this at :
https://deniseminger.com/2011/05/31/wild-and-ancient-fruit/

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    P. D. Mangan says October 29, 2017

    Obviously you’ve never heard of the Ice Age.

    Reply
      Nathan says October 29, 2017

      I suspect seasonally gorging ourselves on fruits was part of our evolutionary history in all but the coldest of climates. Take a break from hunting, eat a bunch of fruit, fatten up some, and then feed off the body fat for a couple additional weeks after the fruit is gone.

      Reply
      seedy says October 30, 2017

      There have been lots of ice ages. But always there has also been tropical & sub tropical areas. They were squeezed not eliminated. So tropical fruit species have also persisted and evolved. The species Homo sapiens evolved for most of it’s roughly 7 millions years it has existed, in the tropics & sub tropics. The research seems also to show that even the Neanderthals migrated into the colder parts of Europe & Siberia about 800,000 years ago…

      Denise Minger is a proponent of a paleo diet. Her article on wild & ancient fruits is well researched and interestingly written.

      Reply
Nathan says October 29, 2017

Evolution designed us to stay lean and agile during times when meat dominated the diet .. it allowed us to get fat and lethargic when fruit was dominant … I’d say it had something to do with the speed of the prey.

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    Charles Grashow says November 4, 2017

    @Nathan – please explain how one gets fat and lethargic when fruit is dominant?

    Reply
      Nathan says November 14, 2017

      @Charles G … Excess sugar becomes body fat and with a higher body fat % you get slower. Additionally the blood sugar/insulin roller coaster results in lethargy.

      But it’s not a problem in an evolutionary environment because fruit doesn’t move. Therefore no selection pressure to stay lean when eating seasonal fruit.

      Reply
Steve says October 29, 2017

The perfect food is pemican a 50/50 mix of fat and dried meat. Explorers lived on it for months, one documented for more than a year. Some 100 year old pemican was found and it was still edible!

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Nathan says October 29, 2017

To be clear, fruit is obviously not healthy in the context of the modern carb -heavy diet.

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Jeremias says October 29, 2017

Which is fine, suspect people ate much less overall in the period you mention. America from 18-19th century. Do have to point out, live expectancy in that era was around 41 yrs old in 1880.

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Rob says October 30, 2017

Nice article, and I generally agree with you. My overall diet is generally fairly low-carb ,mod -high protein, high fat. However, I do enjoy eating blackberries (which grow wild where I live), so I do pick them and freeze them to eat during the winter months (in small quantities, usually with my protein-rich breakfast). I think the polyphenols in berries (particularly anthocyanins) are beneficial, as they have anti-cancer properties. I also drink a glass or two of red wine with dinner, partly because of the anthocyanins and other health benefits.

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Christopher says November 3, 2017

All fuel sources are converted into Glycogen/Glucose, so for those of you who feel that carbs are bad, rethink the science and logic behind that. Once your body is our of carbs, gluconeogenensis comes into play and utilizes fat and protein to make new glucose as a fuel source. No carbs make you LOOK good, but is if worth the cost of being sick? If you don’t have an adequate amount of carbs in your body, your protein wont do what is suppose to do which is build muscle, it will be converted into an energy source as opposed to build muscle and aid in recovery. Look at our teeth, can these incisors tear any flesh? Are our molars huge enough to crush raw nuts and grains? Form dictates function, think about it ..

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    P. D. Mangan says November 3, 2017

    “All fuel sources are converted into Glycogen/Glucose” – no, they’re not. Better go learn some biochemistry.

    Reply
      Nick says November 4, 2017

      It is complicated. I believe I understand it well enough now, but I’m glad you’re able to explain it instead of me!

      Reply
Christopher says November 3, 2017

In a state of hypoglycemia, in order to regulate low blood sugar levels muscle tissue /proteins get broken down and converted in the liver and converted to glucose. Fats can are utilized to make ketone bodies as well . So under scarce conditions, what else can power us but glucose/atp/ ketone bodies. – yes they are

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    P. D. Mangan says November 3, 2017

    Ketone bodies are not glycogen or glucose, and protein, when burned, is not glucose either, though it can be converted into it in gluconeogenesis. And in an energy-replete state, fats and proteins are burned as they are, converted into acetyl-CoA. Outside of gluconeogenesis or ketosis, only carbs are broken down to glucose or made into glycogen. Carbs are not a required nutrient, neither is glucose.

    Reply
Charles Grashow says November 4, 2017

http://sci-hub.bz/10.1016/j.jhevol.2014.03.006
Honey, Hadza, hunter-gatherers, and human evolution

“Honey might be the most common and important insect-related item in the human forager diet, and probably the paleo-diet over much of the Pleistocene, at least in warm climates. Foragers risk falling to their death (or being crippled) when they are in tall baobab trees or climbing vines to access bee hives. These examples of dangerous actions illustrate just how much foragers value honey. Hadza men and women rank honey as their favorite food (Berbesque and Marlowe, 2009). Other foraging societies like the Mbuti also highly value honey (Ichikawa, 1981). Honey is the highest food in calories and the appeal it has among foragers is evidence of the link between high caloric foods and food preferences. This is not only true of the Hadza, but of most foragers (Odea,1991). Across the SCCS warm-climate foragers, all but one society consumes honey and will go to great lengths to acquire it. Honey is an important food for weaned children and Hadza men often say they want to give honey to their children (Marlowe, 2003).”

http://donmatesz.blogspot.com/2010/01/plant-foods-in-kung-diet.html
The Old Way: Plant foods in the !Kung Diet

Your thoughts

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    P. D. Mangan says November 4, 2017

    My thoughts, how? People eat plants and honey, got it. Not domesticated fruit though, and probably not the main thing they want to eat.

    Reply
    P. D. Mangan says November 4, 2017

    Probably plenty to say about that, but one thing that stuck out is that fruit isn’t available 5 months of the year. The way some people describe it, the tropics are just dripping with fruit, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Obviously fruit is available 7 months of the year. Anyway, I don’t know what general inference we can draw from one Pygmy population. Marginalized people.

    Reply
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