Ask an Expert: Can a person eat too much fruit?

Q: Health experts tell us to eat lots of fruits and veggies, but can a person eat too much fruit? On an average day, I eat about 2-1/2 cups of grapes, two apples, two pears and, at dinner, two servings of vegetables. I’m trying to lose a little weight and am worried that fruit may be deceptively high in calories and sugar.

Answer provided by Terese Scollard, M.B.A., R.D., L.D., regional clinical nutrition manager for Providence Nutrition Services:

Yes, fruit is high in natural sugars, and grapes are among the sweetest of fresh fruits. No wonder cold grapes taste so good!

Should you cut back on fruit? Probably — especially if you want to lose weight and eat a balanced diet. All of the food groups are important. If you go overboard on one kind of food — even one as terrific as fruit — you'll miss out on the valuable properties of other healthy foods.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend two cups of fruit and 2-1/2 cups of vegetables each day for a person on a 2,000-calorie diet. You are eating twice the recommended amount of fruit and less than half the recommended amount of vegetables.

This is not an awful problem as diet problems go — it’s better to be nibbling too many grapes than M&Ms or Cheetos. But a few changes will round out your overall diet and help you drop those pounds more easily.

Add up your calories.
I really don't like fixating on calories, because an overly strong focus on numbers can blur the big picture, which is to eat a varied diet of healthy foods and not to eat more than your body needs. However, counting your fruit calories will help you see what a big chunk of your diet the fruit makes up. So let's do some math.

A good general formula for losing one pound a week is to create a 500-calorie daily deficit through a combination of exercise and diet. (The actual magic number of calories for losing weight depends on your age, height and activity level. But in general, when you eat or drink 3,500 calories more than what your body needs, you’ll gain a pound. When you burn 3,500 calories more than you consume, you’ll lose a pound. So if you burn 500 calories more than you consume each day, you’ll get to that 3,500-calorie deficit in seven days, for a pound a week.) Read more about counting calories.  

Let's say that you weigh 150 pounds, that you typically eat 2,000 calories per day, and that your goal is to get to that 500-calorie deficit by burning 200 calories through exercise and cutting 300 calories from your diet each day. That makes 1,700 calories your daily limit for what you can consume.

Fruit is about 80–100 calories per serving. A serving is one cup of fresh fruit or a half cup of canned fruit. (Yes, the exact calories vary, but these are a useful overall guideline.) You are eating about 7-1/2 servings of fruit per day. At an average of 90 calories per serving, that's 630 calories from fruit alone!

Vegetables vary in their calorie counts, but 35 calories per serving is another general guideline. So you are eating another 70 calories from the two daily servings of vegetables you mentioned.

That adds up to 700 calories from produce. With a daily limit of 1,700 calories overall, you have only 1,000 calories left! Here are the other daily recommendations for a healthy diet:

  • Five ounces of lean protein (poultry, tofu, fish, dried beans, lean meat). That adds up to about 350 calories; you have 650 calories to go.
  • Three low-fat or non-fat dairy products at about 100 calories each. Subtract 300 from 650; you have 350 calories left.
  • Six servings of grains (make half of them whole grains to get your fiber, B vitamins and a sense of "I'm full."). At about 80 calories for a one-ounce serving, that equals 480 — and, uh oh, you've already exceeded your goal.
  • Another uh oh: You have no room for healthy fats and oils.

The lesson from the math: Those fruit calories hog too much of your daily diet. So here are some strategies to help you lose weight and balance your diet:

  1. Trade some fruit for more vegetables.
    Obviously you love grapes, but can you hold yourself to one cup each day? For the rest of your snacking, try 1-1/2 cups of easy-to-munch raw vegetables, such as cucumbers, carrots, celery, bell pepper, radishes and Chinese peapods. They'll fill you up and give you fiber, but with a lower calorie count. And you'll add a much broader array of nutrients.
  2. Eat an orange.
    Trade a pear for citrus. Citrus fruits are nutritional powerhouses, packing in vitamins C and A, calcium and even a smidge of iron. Take your pick of an orange, tangerine, mandarin orange or grapefruit — and make it the whole fruit, not juice.
  3. Bring on the good fats.
    Too much fat is bad, but you do need 20 to 35 percent of your calories to come from healthy oils and fats. Oils and oily foods provide essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) that the body can't manufacture on its own. I’m a big fan of fish — such as tuna, salmon, halibut and sardines — as a source of these healthy fats. Other sources are flaxseed meal, tree nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts), canola oil, soy and wheat germ. (Read more fat facts.)
  4. Get more active.
    Burning extra calories will either hasten your weight loss or bump up the overall calories you can afford to eat while losing a pound a week.
  5. Explore the virtues of variety.
    It's great that you are relying on quality foods and not vitamin supplements as the basis of your diet. Fruits and vegetables have stores of phytochemicals — powerful, naturally occurring substances that can't be bottled or packaged as a pill. The phytochemicals work together, often in mysterious ways, to potentially reduce the risk of certain health problems.

We dietitians like to suggest eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables to maximize nutritional variety and tap into an array of phytochemicals. As they come into season, explore melons, kiwi, peaches, berries, pineapple, mango and cherries.

Fruit is wonderful. But you're right in not wanting to overdo a good thing.

January 2004