Fruits and Vegetables Are Not Nutritional Equals!

Unless you’ve been living on another planet you’ve likely heard the practical nutrition advice of “eat more fruits and vegetables.” Considering the average American diet, which is largely devoid of both food groups, this is a pretty sound general recommendation. In fact the government (in one of it’s few decent recommendations) advises that you fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal.

This is all well and good for the general population looking to make broad stroke changes toward a healthier lifestyle. For people looking to optimize their health, whether it be to improve body composition or boost athletic performance, lumping two clearly different food groups into a single recommendation is somewhat head scratching given that fruits and vegetables elicit a different physiological response in the body.

That’s not to say they’re both not good for you. The propensity for combining them into a single food group stems from the fact that they are both nutrient dense, low calorie options when compared to many other foods. There’s an array of phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals that are packed into these foods that provide your body with a host of benefits from keeping your immune system humming along to improving the function of the body’s natural detox and cellular repair pathways.

When you begin to take a closer look at the actual of nutrient density (available nutrients per gram of food) of different fruits and vegetables the two groups become more clearly separated. Dr. Joel Fuhrman has developed a unique rating system called ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) that scores various foods based on their nutrient profiles and caloric content. The higher the score, the more nutrient dense that food is.

While such a system has it’s shortcomings (such as relegating healthy energy dense foods needed to round out the diet to the back of the list) it does a pretty decent job of delineating the best “bang for your buck” options when it comes to providing your body with quality nutrients. One glance at the list and it becomes clear that vegetables, particularly the green, leafy variety, dominate the top of the list.
It’s safe to say that vegetables deliver far more nutrients than fruit. Both are good sources of fiber, which can aid digestion and protect against disease. The only edge that fruits have is that their sugar content is far higher, which is not necessarily a “win” in the battle of the two food groups. It makes them more delicious than vegetables for sure, but that can make them easy to over consume for those people with a sweet tooth. In fact, many fruits have been bred and modified over the years to increase sugar content, often at the expense of nutrients, and make them more appealing to the masses.

The higher sugar content is not necessarily a bad thing when eaten in conjunction with a fairly “clean” diet. Where it becomes in issue is when you follow the “eat more fruits and veggies” advice, make fruit the entirety of your half a plate, and don’t remove the insulin spiking refined and processed foods from your diet. This can lead to the excess sugars from the fruit being stored as fat in your body. In addition, the sugar in most fruits is mainly fructose (with some glucose), which can cause triglycerides and cholesterol to rise in some and has been linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (because fructose goes directly to the liver to be metabolized) and Alzheimer’s.

Other pitfalls to watch for when consuming fruits is to avoid over consumption of dried fruits. Their water content has been reduced, which effectively concentrates the sugar in the fruti and makes them more calorie dense. A handful of dried fruit can easily deliver more calories (ie. sugar) than their non-dehydrated counterparts.

Fruit juices should be consumed sparingly for similar reasons. Juicing, for the most part, removes much of the beneficial fiber. In addition to the benefits discussed earlier, the fiber is also responsible for regulating the speed at which the sugars in fruits are absorbed into the bloodstream, effectively preventing a large insulin spike. By stripping that fiber away you are essentially left with a glass of flavored sugar water that will produce a much larger insulin spike. That glass of O.J. is not quite as healthy as marketers would have you believe.

Fruits do have their place in a healthy diet, but the way in which the current advice is doled out can be confusing and lead to people believing they have a green light to consume as many fruits, in whatever form they come in, as often as they want. The excess sugar can be problematic for the sedentary or diabetic/prediabetic population. More sensible advice would be to consume fruits and vegetables in a 3:1 to 5:1 ratio of veggies to fruits. Consume whole fruits, particular berries which are more fibrous and less sugary, sparingly, such as like a dessert.

For the active population, the rules change. Highly glycolitic activities, such as an intense weightlifting session, can leave the body’s liver and muscle glycogen stores depleted. The body is more insulin sensitive after a workout so consuming extra carbohydrates, such as simple sugars from fruit, allows for glucose to be shuttled into the cells to replenish those stores instead of being stored as body fat. As a bonus the shuttling effect works for the amino acids freed from consumed protein as well, speeding up the anabolic recovery process for damaged muscles. This is why a recovery drink, consisting of a 2:1 carbs to protein ratio is often recommended post-workout and the addition of fruit to make a tasty smoothie is a great option.

For individuals looking to maximize performance during these intense activities it may also be a good idea to consume a piece of fruit, such as an apple one to two hours before activity to ensure their glycogen stores are topped off before the workout. This can be a safety measure to ensure the body is primed for the ensuing activity.

It’s easy to see that fruits clearly have their place in a balanced healthy diet. They are certainly a better choice than the typical processed junk fare that Americans consume, but they may not be nearly as nutritious as most vegetables. Those individuals really looking to optimize their health do need to evaluate their activity levels to determine how to adjust their fruit to veggie ratio, which should be skewed heavily in favor of vegetables.

Need one last shred of proof that we should start considering fruits and vegetables as separate entities? Consider the results of this study from University College London (1) in which the eating habits of over 65000 people were evaluated over a 12 year period. The study found that increased consumption of fruits and vegetables was associated with a decrease in all-cause mortality by up to 42%.

Even more interesting was that when the data was sorted to delineate between fruits and vegetables, the vegetables clearly outperformed the fruits. Each serving of veggies saw a 16% reduction, whereas each serving of fruits resulted in just a 4% drop. Again, both are decent options, but if you want the most bang for your buck it’s time to start loading up your plate with veggies and realizing that maybe, just maybe, fruits and vegetables are not created equal, and that we should start parsing out separate recommendations for these two clearly different food groups.

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