Hierarchy of Fruit

So you are trying to make better decisions with your diet, but there is so much conflicting information out there or you don’t have access to the fresh new “super food” found deep in the Amazon rainforest that some television doctor is raving about. In my Hierarchy of Carbohydrates, I gave you a definitive guide to carbohydrates and an action plan, the “65-30-5 Rule,” that you can immediately implement to optimize your SLAPP, short for Strength, Longevity, Athleticism, Performance (both mental and physical) and Power-to-Weight Ratio.  However,any guide to carb-based foods wouldn’t be complete without a definitive guide to fruit.  If general carb decision-making it tough, choosing fruit is particularly vexing, especially for those with weight loss goals.

Fruit Factors to Consider

  1. Nutrient density is the first factor to consider when picking fruit, or any other food.  A food is considered nutrient dense when it provides a substantial amount of nutrients (e.g. vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and enzymes) with only the necessary amount of calories. Carbohydrates only serve us as an energy source and do not provide any other nutritional benefit on their own, like fats and proteins which are essential building blocks of all cell structures.  Since there is no inherent nutritional value from carbs, picking fruit that maximizes the nutrients you are getting for the carbs is the best way to optimize SLAPP. 
  2. Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, or ORAC value, is a rating for the antioxidant power of a food per the amount of calories they provide.  Foods that rank high on ORAC offer a lot of antioxidant punch for relatively little calories.  This is an ORAC resource that you can view by ranking or by searching a food.
  3. The glycemic index (GI) measures the affect a food has on blood sugar in relation to pure glucose.  The glycemic load (GL) is going to be more helpful for your decision-making because it takes into account how much of the carbohydrate is in the food.  A watermelon, for example, has a high GI but a relatively low GL because it is mostly water.  Check out this chart for GI and GL levels for fruit and other foods.  GI is high if the score is at 70-100, moderate at 50-70 and low if it is below 50.  GL is high if it is over 20, moderate at 11-19 and low if it is below 11.  Interesting note: glycemic measures of fruit differ according to countries of orgin.
  4. Although Fructose has a lower glycemic value than glucose I like to consider the content when picking fruit for the following reasons:
    1. It boosts ghrelin levels, which increases your appetite, meaning you will be more likely to eat more volume.  Maybe that is why I can’t stop eating grapes once I get started.
    2. It has been shown to throw off mineral levels.
    3. Some people have trouble digesting fructose (bloating and diarrhea).
    4. It is processed through the liver before it can be used as fuel.  Making the liver process fructose keeps it from its other jobs, detoxifying and mobilizing body fat for energy.

I want to point out that I put fructose as the last factor I consider when choosing fruit.  A lot of lower fructose ratio fruits have higher overall sugar content and many higher fructose fruits are really nutrient dense.  Think of fructose content as the final tie-breaker, or don’t stress about it at all.  Nutrient density and glycemic load are far more important in my opinion. 

Hierarchy of Fruit

  1. Berries and cherries are the most nutrient dense fruit with the highest ORAC values and the lowest amount of sugar.  They are also low GL.  Added bonus is that they are delicious and perfect for adding to full fat yogurt, which is one of my favorites.  Consider these as part of a good post-workout recovery strategy when some carbs are in order.
  2. Apples and pears in the fall/winter or apricots,peaches and plums in the summer are a good second choice because they are low glycemic, though lower ORAC than berries.  Warning: avoid nectarines, which are high in sugar and more closely related to mangos.
  3. Grapefruit are unlike other citrus, which are really high in sugar.  Their effect on blood sugar is actually less than apples and pears.
  4. Figs often get lumped in with high glycemic dates and raisins, but that is unfair to figs, which are as low in sugar as some berries and full of fiber.
  5. Grapes manage to edge their way into the middle of the hierarchy despite their higher GL and fructose content because they also have high levels of the antioxidant, resveratrol, as well as polyphenols.  And, since they are where wine comes from, I decided to move them up a notch.  Eat in moderation or avoid if weight loss is your goal.
  6. Citrus and Melons are best as a rare treat in moderation.  Some low-carb guides recommend melons because some, like watermelon, have a low GL.  Just be certain you are careful about which ones you pick and how much you eat.  Melons almost made it higher up on this list just because there is almost nothing better than cold watermelon on a hot summer day.  Citrus tend to be really high glycemic.  Lemons and limes are an exception.  I wouldn’t worry about squeezing them into water or on food.  Citrus can be ok in marinades.
  7. Tropical fruits (e.g. bananas, mangos, papaya, and pineapples) have some of the highest GI’s and GL’s.  Avoid completely if you have weight loss goals.  Bananas are a real weight loss killer because they spike insulin levels like no other.  Tropical fruits also tend to be high in fructose, particularly pineapples.
  8. Dried fruits (e.g. dates and raisins) round out the bottom level of the hierarchy.  Both are very high GI and GL without a ton of nutritional value.

Add the Hierarchy of Fruit as a sub-ranking within the Hierarchy of Carbohydrates keeping my “65-30-5 Rule” in mind for a rock solid carb strategy for optimizing SLAPP. That means 65% of your carbs should come from levels 1-3 of the hierarchy, 30% from levels 4-5 where fruit factors in, and 5% or less coming from levels 6-10.  Adjust the rule to 75-20-5 and remember to concentrate on low sugar, low GL fruit if weight loss is your goal. Use this Low-carb/Low-Sugar Fruit list as a resource.  Berries are the one fruit category I support eating daily for those of you that love fruit, need variety or are looking for an energy source to support their training efforts.

This month I have devoted a lot of time to creating hierarchies of foods, products, and even training styles to guide your decision-making and reduce the volume of conflicting information and bullshit in your head.  I want this to be as helpful to you as possible so let me know what else you want to know about and I will go into geek mode to rank it.

Bonus, 5 Fruit Rules:

  1. Buy in-season whenever possible.  There is some research to suggest that it is better for you and there is no doubt it is better for your wallet.  Check out this guide to produce seasonality.
  2. Buy organic.  Fruits are the most heavily sprayed foods out there.  Register for my newsletter at the end of this article to get my Hierarchy of Organics.  You will learn which foods are the most important to buy organic and why. 
  3. Check the date on fruit and check it for bruises and mold.  Any time you buy berries turn the container over to look for mold.  It usually hides on the sides not exposed to light. 
  4. Wash your fruit before prepping or eating. I make it a routine to wash and prep all of my produce as soon as I get home from the market so all my food prep is already done.
  5. Keep stored in an airtight glass container in your fridge for best and longest freshness.  This set from Bed, Bath and Beyond is my favorite and the kind I use at home.  Great product for a good price.