Health & Fitness

Some are unconvinced fruit a nutrition bargain

One strategy I followed while on Weight Watchers a few years ago was opting not to waste any of my daily "points" on fruit. Why spend a point or two on an apple or banana when you could save them to use toward a cheeseburger?

That kind of thinking is probably why I failed to stick with the program.

But now Weight Watchers is on to the likes of me. The new PointsPlus program, introduced just after Thanksgiving, allows members "free" fruit: You can eat that apple or banana without using any points, just as you've been able to do with vegetables. The idea is to nudge people toward choosing a free piece of fruit over, say, a 100-calorie bag of Oreos worth three points.

Is eating more fruit really such a great idea, especially for those trying to watch their weight? Some people say it's not. Their stance: Fruit doesn't pack enough nutritional punch to offset the sugar and calories it adds to our diets.

Even Karen Miller-Kovach, the chief scientific officer at Weight Watchers International, says the company's change on fruit didn't come easy, at least not with her at the scientific helm.

"I had to be assured six times over that it was the right thing to do" from a weight-management perspective, she says.

What convinced her were clinical trials that showed people were not consuming too many extra calories when they could eat as much fruit as they wanted. (The program does not consider fruit juice, dried fruit or canned fruit to be "free" because of their high sugar content.)

Miller-Kovach is not the only one to second-guess fruit.

Nutritionally speaking, fruit's not that great a bargain, according to Joanne Slavin, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota and a member of the federally appointed 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. By and large, it doesn't deliver a potent enough package of vitamins, minerals and fiber, she observes. Particularly for weight loss, Slavin says, protein (which fruits don't contain) is more vital than carbohydrates.

"We don't need more carbs; we need less," Slavin says. "Fruits are part of 'the problem.' They're not that special, just extra calories."

Slavin's work with the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee didn't alter her views. The committee's review of the scientific literature found few studies investigating the roles fruits and vegetables play in keeping people healthy, and hardly any that tease out fruit's effects, separate from those of vegetables. What research there is paints a wishy-washy picture of produce's influence on cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, for instance.

Slavin doesn't have the inside scoop on what the guidelines will recommend when the 2010 version is released. She suspects they'll still suggest we eat more produce than many of us manage to consume. But she also guesses they'll subtly emphasize vegetables over fruits, perhaps even reversing the order from "fruits and vegetables" to "vegetables and fruits."

Fruits have value, of course. They contain fiber and nutrients such as the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E and minerals such as potassium, and they have the advantage of being portable, notes Lalita Kaul, professor of nutrition at Howard University School of Medicine and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. And you don't have to cook fruit, so it can be an excellent snack, especially when a Snickers bar is the other option.

Plus, because fruit is sweet, people may be more likely to substitute it for a sugary snack than to nibble on a vegetable, suggests Christine Gerbstadt, a physician, registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. That kind of dietary displacement makes for a more healthful diet, but not so much if you consistently choose fruits over vegetables.

"I'm not downplaying the promotion of fruits," Gerbstadt says,". . . but I never would say to eat fruit at the exclusion of vegetables."