If I haven’t yet made it abundantly clear, I am pro-carbohydrate.
I am also pro-fruit, a stance that is somewhat less common in the paleosphere.
Why so many paleo dieters eschew fruit I do not entirely understand.
I think it may have to do with Dr Robert Lustig’s infamous talk on the dangers of fructose (you can see the video here). In this talk, back in 2012, Lustig pointed out that increases in sugar consumption are clearly correlated with the rise of obesity and diseases of civilization.
Lustig has a good point. But, like Alan Aragon points out in this fabulous blog post, it is egregiously overstated. The problem Lustig attributes to fructose is not so much actually due to fruit but is instead due to the high fructose corn syrup Americans consume in the form of liquid calories.
Nearly every study ever conducted that demonstrates a significant problem with fructose does so with high doses of soda drinks, not fruit. For example, in the one study that appears to have linked fructose to an increase in appetite the following day, 30% of the subject’s caloric intake for the day was from free fructose, which is about as much fructose as there is in 6-7 non-diet sodas. I am pretty sure no one who tries to eat healthfully is running around sucking down 6-7 non diet sodas every day.
To that end, I am entirely pro-fruit! Of course, this does not mean that everybody has to eat it. Some people simply feel better on starches as a form of carbohydrate consumption (I talk about why to a great extent in my weight loss program Weight Loss Unlocked), or some prefer to eat lower-carb diets for any number of valid reasons. But if you want to eat fruit and appear to tolerate it well, you totally should. There’s nothing stopping you. A few servings of whole fruit a day have no negative health impact whatsoever, and would in fact be quite nourishing.
That said, here are 5 awesome reasons you should eat (or consider eating) fruit:
1. Extant hunter-gatherer communities eat fruit
If there’s one lesson paleo teaches us, it’s that the human body is capable of subsisting off of a wide variety of diets. This is likely a result of the nomadic nature of the human species. Ancient humans wandered around a lot, so their bodies had to be capable of eating a wide range of macronutrient and micronutrient intakes.
I cannot say for certain if your specific ancestors ate fruit, yet I bet they were capable of it, and you are, too.
Plenty of hunter-gatherer cultures that still exist today consume fruit on a regular basis and they are perfectly healthy. Of course, some cultures don’t eat all that much fruit, but others, like the !Kung Bushmen or the Kitavans have diets that consist of more than 50% carbohydrate, much of which is fructose. For the !Kung the fructose comes largely from tropical fruits and honey. For the Kitavans, tropical fruits and starchy tubers.
2. Diets high in fruit can be very healthy
Not only do many existing hunter-gatherher cultures consume high amounts of carbohydrates, but they do so quite healthfully.
Take the Kitavans for an example. 69% of their calories come from carbohydrates. The main sources of carbohydrate for them are mangoes and other tropical fruits and from root vegetables like yams. This is a significant amount of fructose. Yet the Kitavans are no worse for the wear: they appear to be very leptin sensitive, insulin sensitive, have good blood lipid profiles, and to be free of diseases of civilization.
Cultures like the Kitavans prove to us that carbohydrates and fruits in particular are not themselves an unhealthy part of anyone’s diet.
I highly encourage clicking around Stephan Guyenet’s blog if you are interested in learning more about ancestral diets and the health status of extant hunter-gatherer populations.
3. Fructose-based foods have a lower glycemic index than glucose ones
Stepping into the paleo world as a nutritionally-conscious human being who comes from conventional reason is odd for a lot of reasons. One of them is the paleo world’s skeptical stance on fruit, since according to conventional wisdom, fructose is better for you than glucose.
(Fructose is the dominant sugar in fruit, but fruit also contains almost as much glucose as fructose. Glucose on the other hand is the dominant sugar in vegetables, sweet potatoes, legumes, starches, and grains, though there is fructose in these foods as well.)
Now it is obviously important to question conventional wisdom, though sometimes it has some good kernels of truth to it.
In this case, the reason conventional wisdom prefers fruits to other forms of carbohydrates like simple sugars is that fructose causes a smaller rise in blood sugar than glucose.
This is because glucose is transported into the bloodstream directly from the intestines, whereas fructose must first be processed by the liver. This can be a problem for the liver if the liver is under any significant kind of stress from alcohol or fatty liver disease, but in an otherwise healthy liver this is perfectly healthy. Since it is processed by the liver first, fructose has the benefit of keeping blood sugar levels relatively low, which can reduce problems associated with high blood sugar like insulin spikes, high testosterone levels in women, blood sugar crashes, moodiness, and fat storage.
If you happen to struggle with any blood sugar problems or fat storage from consuming starches and other glucose-heavy carbohydrates, then fruits may be the right carbohydrate choice for you. If you are interested in learning more about this, I talk about the fructose/glucose divide and what to do about it at length in Weight Loss Unlocked: The Paleo Woman’s Solution.
4. Whole fruits are nutritious
Fruits in general may not be the nutritional powerhouses that kale and other leafy greens are, but there are some truly standout fruits, and fruits as a whole do pack a powerful nutritional punch that measures up to vegetables.
Those “truly standout fruits” are the ones you’d expect: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, goji berries, and cherries. These fruits are so healthy because they are super rich in powerful antioxidants that help fight off disease, can be somewhat protective against cancer, can slow aging, and can help fight inflammation. These fruits also have relatively high fiber contents when compared to other fruits, which reduces their glycemic index and keeps blood sugar levels low.
Depending on the type of fruit, fruit can be high in vitamins A (high in orange-colored fruits), and particularly C and E (E tends to be high in green fruits, like avocadoes and kiwi).
All fruits are great sources of vitamin C, which is a great antioxidant. Vitamin C is also crucial for neurotransmitter synthesis in the brain, is super helpful for adrenal health, and is crucial for a healthy immune system. You cannot get enough vitamin C, and fruit is an excellent source of it.
5. Carbohydrates are important for your health
When it comes down to it, the most important reason you should be eating fruit is that carbohydrates as a whole are important, especially for women’s health.
And as a paleo dieter, you typically have two choices for meeting your carbohydrate needs: fruits, or starches. Some women, as I have mentioned before, I believe do better on fruits (like I do), and some do better on starches.
In either case, I recommend eating at least 100 grams of carbohydrate a day, at a minimum, especially for women of reproductive age. It is of course possible to be heatlhy and eat fewer grams of carbohydrate, but this is an excellent starting point for most women. I know it may seem high to some people who have been eating low carb paleo for some time, but 100 grams still isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of things…Only 20% of a 2000 calorie diet.
Why are carbohydrates good for you?
Carbohydrates are important for thyroid health, for one. The liver needs adequate glucose in the blood to manufacture T3 — the form of thyroid hormone crucial for the functioning of all cells in the body. Without adequate glucose, thyroid production can fall off, which can both cause weight gain as well as significant health issues.
Carbohydrates may be particularly important for the female body to produce adequate serotonin, as well as to support the adrenal glands through periods of stress.
Carbohydrates are also important because they are a part of the mechanisms that tells your brain you have been fed. Without them, the female body may start to feel like it is starving, which will in turn cause the body to decrease sex hormone production. Sex hormone imbalances can cause insomnia, anxiety, depression, mood swings, low libido, hypothyroidism, amenorrhea (loss of menstruation), PCOS, and infertility.
You can read more about fasting, starving, and the female body here.
You can read more of the details about carbohydrates and women’s health at this post: Carbohydrates for Fertility and Health.
To that end, I really highly encourage every woman of reproductive age to include carbohydrates in her diet on a daily basis, if not even in every meal. I know that I almost always include carbohydrates (usually fruits!) in my meals, and I feel better for it. Of course that doesn’t apply to everybody…really, I do know that so many of you do better on a low carbohydrate diet… but I believe it’s worth a shot if you’re looking for answers. You never know until you try, right?
And that brings me to an end of the list of reasons to eat fruit! What do you think? Do you eat fruit? Do you eat starches? No carbs at all? Everybody’s different, and I’d to hear your unique story!