It’s a question I’ve been asked time and again since becoming something of a health authority: is fruit paleo? An excellent question, and one which I usually don’t have enough hours in the day to answer in sufficient detail. This, in case you’re wondering, is not one of those times.
Can you eat fruit on a Paleo diet?
The short answer is: yes! While many “hardcore” Paleo punters wouldn’t be caught dead beside a bowl of fruit, it’s totally unreasonable, and in many cases unhealthy, to completely remove fruit from your life. Phew! Am I right?
But that affirmative isn’t your one-way ticket to a daily fruit binge. We know that our Paleolithic ancestors certainly ate fruit – the berries or drupes that they came across in the wild would have provided valuable nutrients and minerals to fill in the nutritional gaps of their predominantly protein-based diets. But what we also know is that those fruits were not the same as those we find on our supermarket shelves today.
If you’ve ever walked through a forest glade and noticed a patch of wild strawberries growing in the sunshine, you’ll know what I mean. Wild strawberries have almost no resemblance to their monstrous cultivated counterparts, and this is due to thousands of years of genetic selection. Some time after the agricultural revolution, around 10,000 years ago, humans began to alter those “wild” fruit species that our Paleolithic forebears foraged. People realized that by only selecting and growing those fruit variants that were larger, sweeter, or more edible, they could develop a whole new “species” of superfruit. This selective style of cultivation continued throughout the millennia, to give us the fruits we are sold today. Yes, even the organic, non-GMO fruit!
In many cases, this was an essential part of allowing humans to eat and enjoy a certain kind of fruit in the first place. For example, the uncultivated, wild version of bananas are actually virtually inedible. Their seed to flesh ratio is so high that it’s almost not worth bothering to eat them, but every now and then a sterile banana is produced that doesn’t have any seeds. It was those sterile bananas that people loved to eat, and they therefore started taking cuttings of the sterile plants and reproducing banana trees without all the seeds. Because they’re all sterile, the only way these trees can be reproduced is by vegetative propagation – taking part of the original tree to create an exact genetic copy of it.
I happen to love bananas, so I’m not going to begrudge those enterprising farmers for playing around with nature. But what these genetic selections means is that cultivated fruit is completely different to the wild fruit our ancestors ate. It’s generally sweeter (so far higher in fructose), less nutritionally dense…and there’s a whole lot more available today than there was 10,000+ years ago!
With this in mind, for the Paleo eater, fruit should become less of a “health food” and more of a nutritious treat. That orange juice with breakfast or fruit smoothie for lunch, by the way, is not what the doctor ordered.
Not all fruits were created equal, however, so if you’re going to get your daily dose of fruit, which is best for your health?
Which fruit is best to eat on a Paleo diet?
There’s a few ways you can approach the healthiest fruit:
- how much sugar does it contain?
- how nutritious is it?
- how much chemical residue does it contain?
Ideally, you’d only eat those fruits that are low in sugar, high in beneficial nutrients, and low in pesticides and herbicides. Often it’s hard to tick all three boxes, but here’s a short overview to get you heading in the right direction.
Sugar content of popular fruit
Generally speaking, your berries and sour citrus fruits have the lowest fructose content, while things like apples, grapes and mangoes have the most. Probably no great surprise – fruit that makes your face pucker up is generally low in sugar!
- Avocado (yup, it’s a fruit!): 1 g sugar/cup
- Lime: 1 g sugar/medium
- Lemon: 2 g sugar/medium
- Raspberries: 5 g sugar/cup
- Kiwi: 6 g sugar/medium
- Strawberries: 7 g sugar/cup
- Grapefruit: 9 g sugar/medium
- Watermelon: 9 g sugar/cup
- Orange: 13 g sugar/medium
- Banana: 14 g sugar/medium
- Blueberries: 15 g sugar/cup
- Dates: 16 g sugar/medium
- Apple: 19 g sugar/medium
- Mango: 23 g sugar/cup
- Grapes: 23 g sugar/cup
- Raisins: 86 g sugar/cup
This is just to give you an idea of which fruits are better than others on the fructose scale. On any given day, you’re better off sticking to berries like raspberries, strawberries, cranberries and blackberries, citrus fruit, and maybe the odd kiwi, plum, or watermelon. Fructose is highly inflammatory, and can contribute to conditions like fatty liver disease and diabetes. Generally the less fructose you consume per day, the better.
How nutritious is your fruit?
This is probably the most difficult aspect of prioritizing your fruit. Different fruits contain different ratios of various nutrients, making direct comparison rather difficult. If you’re suffering from cramps or headaches, you could be lacking in potassium, meaning from a nutrient standpoint a potassium-rich banana might be a good choice. If you’re worried about cancer, however, dark-colored fruits like blueberries or strawberries might be a better choice as they have more antioxidants. It really comes down to what your body is lacking. For fruit-specific nutritional content, you might want to check out this database.
Otherwise, a very committed researcher from William Paterson University ranked 47 fruits and vegetables based on 17 different nutrients considered critical for fighting heart disease and cancer. You can check out their handy ranking system in this article. You’ll notice that there’s far more vegetables on the list than fruit. That’s not a coincidence. I’ve stressed time and again that vegetables should form the backbone of produce in your diet, as they’re generally more nutritionally dense and lower in sugar than most fruit.
Those fruit that did make the nutritional cut are tomato (yep, also a fruit!), lemon, strawberry, orange, lime, grapefruit and blackberry. I’d also be inclined to add avocado to that list – it’s certainly a nutritional powerhouse.
All these fruits also happen to have relatively low sugar content. How convenient!
Is your fruit doused in chemicals?
I’ve written about this very topic in my guide to shopping for fruit and vegetables. Based on comprehensive data compiled by the Environmental Working Group, the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists tell you which produce is best to buy based on potential for chemical residue, and which is worst. Based on their findings, avocados, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, kiwi, honeydew melon, grapefruit and cantaloupe have the lowest risk of chemical pesticide, herbicide or insecticide residue. Unfortunately, lots of your favorite fruits didn’t make the cut, including strawberries, cherries, apples, nectarines, peaches, grapes and tomatoes.
You’ll notice that those fruits which made the Clean 15 all have thick skins which you don’t typically eat. Those that were included in the Dirty Dozen have thin skins that blemish easily and are almost always consumed (except for the oddballs who don’t like apple skin!). With this in mind, I have three recommendations: firstly, always buy organic when you can, as this sidesteps any risk of chemical residue. Secondly, if you can’t buy organic, go for those fruits with the thicker (inedible) skins. And finally, if you must eat your non-organic strawberries and other Dirty Dozen fruit, be sure to give them a good soak first.
Recipe: Paleo fruit salad
Personally, I take great pleasure in eating fruit. It adds a whole lot more flavor and color to my day, so I’m not willing to completely throw in the fructose towel! And when you take into consideration the above factors, there’s no reason why you should give up fruit either.
To rekindle your love of fruit, here’s a great recipe for a Paleo fruit salad I’ve honed over the years. Its filled with fruits that have lower fructose content and higher nutritional value, so it’s not only a tasty treat, but a healthy one too! Just be sure to limit your fruit intake to around 2 servings (a couple of handfuls) per day.
- 3 plums, cut into wedges
- 1 peach, cut into wedges (organic or soaked is best)
- 1 orange, cut or pulled apart into segments
- 1/2 cup strawberries, chopped in half (organic or soaked is best)
- 1/2 cup blackberries
- 1/2 cup raspberries
- 1 banana, sliced
- 3 limes, squeezed
- 1 sprig mint, finely diced
Using a lemon squeezer or your own trusty hands, squeeze the juice from your 3 limes into a small bowl. Remove the mint leaves from the stem, and dice the leaves relatively finely. Add to the bowl of lime juice, and allow to sit for at least 2 hours so that the mint infuses the lime juice.
Next, cut your plums, peach and oranges into wedges, adding to a large serving bowl. Chop up your banana and throw it in, along with your halved strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries. Peel the orange and add in the segments – if it’s a particularly big orange, you can cut each segment in half to ensure it doesn’t “steal the show”.
When you’re ready to serve, drizzle your lime and mint dressing over the salad, give it a gentle toss to ensure all the fruit is covered and well-mixed, and sprinkle over a garnish of mint leaves if you have any left over. The lime and mint dressing provides a refreshing counterpoint to the sweetness of the other fruits, and has the added benefit of helping to preserve your fruit salad for longer.
Thanks for reading, everyone! Let me know whether you’ve tried the recipe, or if you have your own Paleo-tastic fruit salad to share with the world!