Can eating fruit lead to weight gain?

An interesting article popped up online overnight concerning whether or not the consumption of fruit can lead to weight gain.  At face value, it could be one of those polarising pieces where both sides of the argument are claiming a blanket recommendation – either fruit consumption always makes you increase in body fatness, or oppositionally, all fruit consumption is entirely healthy and should be further encouraged.  Except it isn’t anything of the sort.  If one reads through it carefully, one can see that those in the “fruit can make you fat” camp are actually suggesting that context matters.  And while, as best I can tell, none of the main players in this piece have any affiliations with any paleo paradigm, they address one of the common stumbling blocks for those jumping on the paleo bus – to fruit or not to fruit?

First the article – edited to stick to the most salient points…

Fruit blamed for weight gain

It is a controversial concept that riles nutritionists but Rod Tayler’s theory that restricting fresh fruit in the diet can result in weight loss has been borne out by the experiences of participants in a trial he is running at the Epworth Hospital in Melbourne.

Dr Tayler believes the biggest driver behind the rapid rise in the nation’s girth is sugar, not fat. Fruit, he says, is full of it – a 150 gram apple contains four teaspoons of sugar.

He acknowledges that regular consumption is fine for anyone without a weight problem, but believes fruit needs to be cut out to lose kilos, along with alcohol and refined carbohydrates.

There is nothing of nutritional value in fruit that you do not get from vegetables,” he said.

Dr Tayler’s quest was spurred by a dramatic rise in the number of overweight people presenting for surgery in the past 10 years. Although he has no formal training in nutrition, he started researching published scientific articles about obesity after reading the former lawyer David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison. Gillespie’s book tells how he lost 40 kilograms after cutting out sugar.

Dr Tayler, an anaesthetist, initiated the Epworth Sweet Study last December and now has more than 100 participants, mostly health employees.

His unorthodox ideas about fruit have support from Ken Sikaris, the director of chemical pathology at Melbourne Pathology, who has a particular interest in blood sugar levels in the overweight and obese.

Dr Sikaris said the population falsely believed fruit was a ”safe haven”. Australian dietary guidelines recommend two pieces of fresh fruit a day.

”Some people mistakenly think that if two is good then four is better, but that is just not the case,” he said.

Fruit was traditionally small and seasonal and used to fatten people and animals during summer for the winter ahead.

”But we never have a winter any more, fruit is refrigerated and flown in from all over the world so we can have it all year round,” he said.

Let’s jump in at this point and look at some of the statements made.  First, the comment regarding fruit as a safe haven.  In my experience, both with my own eating and in working with other individuals as a nutritionist, this statement is absolutely correct.  People have the perception that fruit is a free pass… that one can snack on fruit, ad libitum because, well, it is fruit, and fruit is a healthy whole food.  Within both official public health recommendations and those made within the popular media, such as this article (where the vast majority of the public get their nutritional information), it is not uncommon to always read of “fruitsandvegetables” as if they are the same entity and entirely inseparable in terms of their impact on our biology and health outcomes.  Both are plants, sure.  But then wheat is a plant and nobody argues that wheat and vegetables are the same thing do they… Don’t answer that.

The point is, fruit, especially the modern stuff that has had its sweetness and sugar levels jacked up, can cause some individuals with underlying metabolic problems a few issues if they are relying on fruit too heavily.  For someone just off the street and without the foggiest idea with regard to a paleo template, actual fleshy fruit is likely the least of their worries, so I’m not going to write with these people in mind.  I’m going to focus on those who have (mostly) stripped all of the processed crap-in-a-box out of their diet, and have created a void in energy intake.

Obviously, I am going to advocate that this void be filled with good fats, quality sources of animal protein, perhaps some starchy root vegetables, and plenty of leafy greens.  In practice, however, whilst most women people are good at removing the processed grains from their diet and jumping on the low-carb wagon, they are decidedly average at loading enough fat and protein into their diet to compensate.  This means that they go through the day feeling hungry and dissatisfied and wondering just what quick and easy “paleo” snacks they can fill up on.  Enter fruits and nuts.

Now, the initial removal of the main problematic foods gets them so far.  But then progress begins to stall and they may even slip backward.  Then what?  In my mind, this becomes the time that you seriously need to question whether even what might be considered a modest intake of “healthy and nutritious” fruit (and nuts, if they are being equally leaned on), is preventing these individuals from making progress.  Maybe it is time that they swap some of these fruits out in exchange for more vegetables and starchy root tubers.  Afterall, as Dr Tayler states above ”there is nothing of nutritional value in fruit that you do not get from vegetables.”

The article touches on the subject of seasonality.  I don’t want to get too bogged down in this concept as I know a couple of very bright minds who are likely to tackle this topic in more depth and with more finesse than I ever could.  However, if we accept that foods that would have been available only on a relatively seasonal basis, are able to signal to our biology and initiate a response appropriate to the season, then what signal might have the availability of fruits (and perhaps even nuts in an overlap) have sent to our physiology about the impending winter?  What physiological response do we see in those animals who gorge themselves on fruits in the late summer, early autumn months?

From the article: “Fruit was traditionally small and seasonal and used to fatten people and animals during summer for the winter ahead.

As one might expect, suggesting that over-doing the fruit intake might be leading to body issues with some individuals, isn’t going to be a popular stance within conventional circles.  Here is that response;

However, the nutritionist Rosemary Stanton argues there is no evidence people need to cut down on fruit, and points out that Dr Tayler’s sweet study has not been published in a medical journal.

”I think what they are doing is mixing up fruit and fruit juice,” Dr Stanton said. ”It’s pretty hard to consume five apples at once but it’s easy to consume them as a glass of fruit juice, and fruit juice is not much different to soft drink.”

Dr Stanton said it was a struggle to get most people to eat the recommended two pieces of fruit a day.

”You can have too much of a good thing but most people don’t and the danger when you give out a message that fruit is somehow bad is that the people who are eating none or one piece will eat less and instead will eat chips and biscuits and things like that,” she said.

She suggested participants in Dr Tayler’s study were more likely to have lost weight because they reduced their kilojoule intake from sources such as fruit juice, alcohol and refined carbohydrates rather than fresh fruit.

I really do think Dr Stanton is talking about an entirely different subset of the population, perhaps even the dominant type.  This is the type I see in the supermarket every week, with virtually no plant-matter in their trolley at all, low quality meat such as sausages, litres of soft drinks, margarine, and virtually every permutation of grain product possible.  Do we need to worry about them overdoing the fruit? Probably not.

But what about those who, as I’ve already discussed, are eating relatively clean (paleo or otherwise), but putting away up to half a dozen serves of fruit per day in the belief that this is healthy?  Would four apples per day really be too much?  Well if this is adding up to 16 teaspoons of sugar per day (~80g), on top of some of the other sources, then perhaps it is.  Particularly when we start to look at those who might carry a degree of metabolic derangement.  It is quite possible that this level of fruit intake in someone with metabolic issues could be the equivalent of 2-3 times this amount for someone who is more metabolically robust (these numbers are for illustration of my point only).

But one of the study participants, Mary McPherson, 60, is convinced of its merits, having lost 10 kilograms gradually over six to eight months. She reduced her fruit consumption from four or five pieces a day to two pieces – ”some berries and a banana, I can’t go without a banana a day” – and instead filled up on dry roasted almonds. Occasional sweet cravings were satisfied with a single piece of dark chocolate.

Ms McPherson also followed Dr Tayler’s advice to reduce refined carbohydrates such as white rice, pasta and potatoes, replacing them with brown rice and sweet potatoes – though refused to give up her two glasses of wine with dinner.

”The surprise was just how big a role sugar played in increasing my weight. I don’t think people understand that. I didn’t and I’ve been working [as a nurse] for a long time.”

You can see from the highlighted statement above that this contradicts Dr Stanton’s stance that people don’t often consume such high levels of fruit.  But they do and people (patients and health professionals) need to be open to the fact that such a high fruit intake might be an issue that needs addressing or at least be open to trialling a lower intake.

The likes of the Whole30 programme suggests keeping a tight rein on fruit intake for the very reason that over-consumption of fruit may unsettle an individual’s attempts to establish a new equilibrium, and Mark Sisson recently reviewed his Primal Blueprint food pyramid to reflect a new understanding on the role fruit plays in our diet.

My thinking on certain foods has changed over the years, and this is my acknowledgment of that. Fruit, while an awesome, delicious method of seed dispersal that I’m glad plants employ, may not be right for everyone in unlimited quantities

…instead of fruits and vegetables (including starchy tubers and roots, presumably) being lumped together, I separated them. Why? Well, a fruit is not a vegetable is not a potato. They all rely on photosynthesis, leaves or leafy-like things, water, a good loamy, nutrient-rich soil, and the caring hand of either Mother Nature or a grizzled farmer to come into existence, but they confer very different metabolic and health effects.

So again, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, context matters.  Fruit can be a healthy part of an individual’s diet, but not such that a high consumption of fruit displaces more appropriate foods that may confer more benefit.  People need to be mindful of the biological signal that all foods, and the interactions these foods have with the likes of activity levels and modes, sleep quality and quantity, and season, etc., send to your biology.  Even though a food group is “natural”, “healthy”, and “paleo”, it won’t always mean no thought should be given to tempering your intake of it.

28 thoughts on “Can eating fruit lead to weight gain?

  1. Anastasia

    Very timely post, Jamie. I had a brain explosion today and had an apple. Ok, before you freak out that I freak out about having an apple, hear me out. 
    I’m a recovering sufferer of postprandial reactive hypoglycemia. Take away the fructose content of fruit which may or may not be relevant in these doses, and I still have a problem with fruit on its own. Anyone with a blood sugar dysregulation issues will know what I’m talking about. You try to have a “healthy snack” and you end up hungrier, angrier and shakier than you started, to say nothing of a nasty bout of heartburn. An hour later, and the Snickers ads on TV didn’t look that revolting anymore. So my little excursion into the world of fruit ended up in “never doing that again, unless there’s dark chocolate, heavy cream or coconut milk involved”. Oh, and it tasted horribly sweet. 
    So my opinion: fruit cravings = sugar cravings if a salad doesn’t solve it. Fructose is bad, sugar roller coaster is worse, stimulating further sugar/carb cravings is just silly. Me, I’ll stick to my berries or fat-laden fruit accompaniments. 

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      One of the things that practitioners hope for in the people they work with, is the degree of self-awareness you show here, Anastasia. Leaving any weight issues aside, people need to learn the patterns that occur within themselves. For example, in your case, eat an apple, hunger increases, mood decreases, GI distress occurs, and there is a pull toward less than ideal foods. If more people understood their triggers, including not giving fruit a free-pass, then they might be better off.

    2. julianne

      Me – I’m the same with fruit. I never have it on it’s own. I don’t think my trigger happy insulin secreting pancreas will ever be different, and most carbs eaten alone – especially rice and fruit trigger a reactive hypo.

      1. Emily Deans MD

        might be why I’m not a huge fan either – though a banana on it’s own if I exercise doesn’t seem to do any harm, hypo-wise – I have to say I haven’t had much trouble with hypoglycemia since changing my diet to include more fat most of the time.

    3. tessafinneybrown

      Sigh, I too fall prey to reactive hypo when eating fruit. If I have it as dessert I go from 99% satiated to craving more and more…. even berries are doing it to me. Sigh, guess it’s time to cut out altogether. Cue sad face.

  2. George Henley

    Good stuff. That was one of my goals as well…..to cut back on fruits which I successfully did(surprisingly easy) this past summer. That said I have been craving apples of late but Fall is harvest season here in Canada and local apples are everywhere.

    I think a seasonal approach to diet is understated so, maybe, my apple cravings are simply nature’s way of fattening me up for a winter of bike commuting(wink). That is a perfect segue for this question….if one eats some fruits as part of a Paleo-Primal diet which are the better choices.

    Thanks;
    Geo

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      My preference is toward starchy fruits such as bananas (I know – starch!!), and berries. I do eat other fruits outside of this, but I try to stay relatively seasonal and I don’t eat anything like I used to in terms of volume. That said, if I fancy an apple or the like, I’ll have one. But I make sure I’m not displacing something else in the process that might be of more benefit to me.

      1. George Henley

        No worries…….I embrace some dietary starch, namely sweet potato and the occasional white potato. There is something magical about a steak and potato.

        Berries……..so berries don’t have the issues found in fruit? If not that is awesome since I have a deep freezer full of non sprayed local blueberries. Eaten with some coconut milk and cinnamon they are delicious.

  3. Sarah

    Great post. I would add that if you want to look at another bodyfat-regulation paradigm, fruit would score pretty high in food reward – a good hit of sugar, pleasant, stimulating taste and often a crunchy or juicy texture. So not only would you be getting extra sugar you don’t really need along with the vitamins and fibre you can just as easily obtain from a bunch of kale, you’re also getting the appetite-stimulating buzz that increases your ability to eat more of everything. I find it interesting that the Paleo community isn’t paying more attention to what Stephan Guyenet is saying about food reward – it’s completely compatible with Paleo and explains a lot about why Paleo works really, really well for some people and not so much for others. Fruit consumption is a bit part, I think, about why it doesn’t work for everyone, and the sugar component is only part of it.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      I think there are plenty of us in the paleo community that have read Stephan’s take on food reward and who see the merit in it. We just perhaps try not to hang our hat on it as a theory of everything. I think JS Stantons food reward series is better balanced than Stephan’s, though clearly there is much common ground between the two.

      1. Galina L.

        I am a hard-core LC for 4 years,but there are occasions when I take the Reward quality of my food into consideration. By removing most carbs from my diet, I eliminated 99% of the food it is difficult to stop eating. Still, it is better for me to avoid any nuts – I just can’t stop eating if there are nuts in my household, the same may happens with prosciutto. Most of the time my food is simple and lightly cooked, then satiety signals work the best.

  4. Nance

    Jamie, I agree that fruit should be a limited item BUT as an American in her 60s I have to go out of my way to find ripe, sweet fruit. As a child it was everywhere but now everything is picked green and bred to withstand storage and shipment. All my older friends agree that our biggest complaint with today’s fruit is that it ISN’T sweet and tastes like mush.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Certainly some of our imported fruit can taste very average, as do apples, etc. that have been grown here but still held in cool storage. But does the ripeness of the fruit ultimately alter the actual composition at the point of digestion?

      1. Nance

        I think composition does matter, because why else are my taste buds telling me this is crappy fruit? BTW, I believe anything you binge on will make you fat and fruit is certainly no different. What I have trouble swallowing is that a supplement is better than a piece of good fruit.

      2. Alex J

        As a fruit grower I’ll chime in here. There are two competing trends: fruit being breed to be sweeter, and fruit being pick at progressively lower levels of ripeness for economic reasons (less loss to disease, longer shelf life, automated harvesting, etc.).

        When we talk about fruit ripening after being harvested, we are primarily looking at the enzymatic conversion of starches to sugars (so no net change in carbs). However, a great deal of fruit is harvest so early that the total level of carbs are significantly reduced.

        Unfortunately Nance, your taste buds aren’t necessarily a good guide to the composition of the fruit; flavor is a whole other issue…

  5. Emily Deans MD

    It’s funny, because outside fruitarians, I always wonder how much fruit people can actually eat. I’m pretty much done with a banana and a half an apple. So much chewing and swallowing for so little return ;-)! At least veggies usually have butter, roasting, and a little salt to liven them up. I’m frankly amazed that people go hog wild and eat 5 pieces of fruit every day.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Welcome back! :)

      Having been the type who can eat at least half a dozen pieces of fruit per day, I can well see how it happens. You just have this constant background “hunger” and desire to keep eating that doesn’t go away when you aren’t eating any fat. Fruit becomes a safe bet… it is fruit and it is healthy, afterall! Perhaps when not getting enough fat when you eat a clean low-fat diet, the fact that fructose can lead to hepatic palmitic acid output, that is what can drive it? I’ve always suspected that the fruitarians can get away with their diet by virtue of eliminating the toxic NADs and eating enough fruit to keep palmitc acid output high.

      1. Stabby

        Although generally what you see is that at those intakes of fruit that’s basically all they can eat. Start adding pretty much anything else in and watch the downward spiral. So maybe if you want to eat like 5% of your diet as fat that won’t make you fat, but does anyone really want to ruin their health long-term like that? If you can’t eat a significant amount of every macronutrient without gaining weight, you aren’t really healthy.

  6. Galina L.

    About 10 years ago, when we bought our house, I planted variety of fruit tries on our piece of land. We live in Florida, and now I have a huge amount of oranges, lemons, blueberries, peaches, some pomegranates, all testes great..I eat blueberries, sometimes a peach, a pomegranate once a week, lemons are easy to use in cooking . Conveniently, my husband consumes much more fruits and my neighbors are happy when I share my crop.

  7. tess

    i don’t doubt that Jamie is right about being drawn to fruit if one isn’t getting enough fat…. i find, if after a good dinner i’m unsatisfied, a couple of ounces of cream tastes VERY sweet, and definitely sating.

    i’ve come to believe that our natural taste for sweetness is actually designed to draw us toward fat, not sugar.

  8. icgam

    Oh, yes it can. I gained weight for the first time in my life by eating six to eight pieces of fruit a day. And my reactive hypoglycemia got out of control. I was trying to eat healthy of course and was eating only “real food” à la Weston Price foundation meets 30 bananas a day (I was not ready for loads of red meat yet) I am down to 2 pieces of fruit a day, no grains, no sugars, no dairy, lots of animal products and 18 pounds lighter. My perimenopausal symptoms are all gone. I have lots of energy. And for the first time in my life I am not hungry and bloated all the time.

  9. Rod Tayler

    Rod Tayler here. I’m the principal investigator of the study referred to in “Can Eating Fruit Lead to Weight Gain”. This is by far the most accurate and thought provoking response I have seen to date. And I will incorporate a number of aspects of it into future presentations I give on this topic. As you say, context is important in considering the role of fruit in our diets. This website looks great and I look forward to browing the archive. I’ll keep in touch. Thanks.

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post, Rod. As you well know, both the media and other commentators can often take something, that might form a great headline, or invoke an emotive response, out of context. Careful reading of that report did show the context in which you are working, and the comments on this post to date, from very informed and self-aware individuals, would tend to suport your hypothesis.

      Please do feel free to share any further thoughts or observations.

  10. PaleoPeriodical

    Another population who has issues with fruit: moms with children. I live in a health-conscious community, and trust me, at snacktime with kids it’s always fruit and crackers. I’ve even heard some moms give a sigh of relief that if their picky eater won’t touch vegetables, “Well, at least she eats fruit.” You’re absolutely right, somehow fruits and vegetables became lumped in together as being equal. I’m starting to view it more as candy.
    We’re a Primal household, and even my daughter eats more fruit than I’d like (probably at least 2-3 pieces a day). I’m considering storing it out of sight so she can’t demand it anymore.

    1. Emily Deans MD

      My kids would eat meat and fruit (okay, and pasta and candy) exclusively if I let them. All other foods could go to hell. Seriously. Bananas, apples, grapes, berries… and meat. I give them rice and eggs with tons of butter and whole fat milk for some variety!

  11. Danae

    I’ve gained weight from eating large quantities of fruit. I was a skinny kid, and I’ve been a normal-weight adult my entire life (now 58 yr.) But through my 40s I gained about 15 pounds, going from a low-normal weight to a high-normal one. I was puzzled at the pattern: I’d gain several pounds over the summer, and then lose some, but not all, of it over the winter. This was in distinct contrast to the pattern that I saw in my 20s, when I would gain some weight during a sedentary and stressful winter as a student, and then lose it all in the summer, when I had an active, outdoor job.

    I finally realized that a big part of the summer problem was abundant fruit. I live in a area where there is wonderful U-pick fruit all summer long, and I always picked large amounts of raspberries, blueberries, etc. to freeze and to keep in the fridge for snacks. And there was always great seasonal fruit at the farmer’s market. We didn’t keep much junk food in the house, so fruit was the “healthy snack.” I could easily eat 4-5 servings a day of the fresh, seasonal stuff.

    Once we headed into winter, I’d realize that I needed to drop a few pounds. The fruit wasn’t as alluring by then, and I don’t have a big problem resisting the cake/cookie/ice cream treats, so it was fairly easy to cut back and lose a little weight. (Though not quite enough weight to prevent a slow gain over the years.)

    I currently eat a fairly low-carb diet, and I’m back at a low-normal weight. It wasn’t particularly hard to ditch the grains, but it still pains me to limit myself to about 1 piece of fruit a day. It’s more than just the sugar in it that is alluring; there’s such a great variety of flavor, texture, etc.

  12. Monica

    This was such a helpful post- thank you! (I love your posts in general: they’re consistently jampacked with awesome info.) I find that I do have a much tougher time dropping weight when I’m eating fruit. I also have a tendency to overdo the fruit once I take that first bite… Ah, sugar…!

Comments are closed.