I’m a diehard salad connoisseur known for my flamboyant blends of veggies, fruit, and seafood. Interestingly, whenever I post a salad recipe or pic, someone almost always questions my choice of including fruit. Now, everyone knows that eating fruit is beneficial for good health, as it’s packed full of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that fight disease and fuel important bodily functions and day-to-day activities.
However, there’s a common misconception that eating fruit with or even after a meal is bad. The main claim is that doing so disrupts proper digestion and nutrient absorption. Like most common misconceptions, there’s a little bit of truth to this one.
And, this certainly evokes the question of whether there’s actually an ideal time to eat fruit.
Before I address that question, I’ll first highlight some important tidbits about fruit and the digestive process.
Fruit is naturally comprised of simple carbohydrates (or sugars) called monosaccharides. Due to its sugar composition, fruit tends to digest relatively quickly when eaten on an empty stomach. This is a good thing, especially when fruit is consumed between meals as it can serve as a quick fix to quiet hunger pangs. In contrast, eating fruit in the presence of other foods substantially delays the rate of digestion of the otherwise rapidly digestible sugars it contains.
This holds especially true when fruit is combined with meats, dairy foods and starches, as these foods inherently digest at a much slower rate.
And, herein lies the source of general misconception.
The basic premise behind the misconception is simple: Eating fruit in the presence of slow-digesting foods causes them to ferment in the stomach, increasing the likelihood of nutrient malabsorption, gas, indigestion, and other gastrointestinal disturbances. Sugar fuels the fermentation process; hence, the sugar housed in fruit is considered the culprit here.
On the flip side is the idea that eating fruit on an empty stomach (before a meal) prevents such disturbances and essentially prepares the digestive tract for the slower-digesting foods to come. While reasonable, this explanation is actually far from the truth, mainly since it doesn’t adequately convey the complexity of the fermentation process.
Let me break it down real simple.
The fermentation process is one in which sugars are metabolically converted to acids, gases, or alcohol. Foodstuffs like beer and wine, yogurt, and cheese are produced through fermentation. But, the process itself initially requires the presence of microorganisms like yeast or bacteria, which themselves feed on the sugars housed in different foods. In this sense, eating a slice of yeast-rich bread with a piece of sugar-rich fruit might sound like a bad thing.
The truth is, however, that a healthy stomach is naturally a very acidic environment.
In fact, it’s so acidic that most microorganisms are incapable of surviving in it.
Without microorganisms, sugar is incapable of fueling the fermentation process. Furthermore, since the large intestine is the primary site of fermentation in humans, the foods that were previously in the stomach have little relevance anyway. By the time the remaining foodstuffs reach the large intestine, the essential nutrients they once contained have already been fully digested and absorbed.
So what’s the bottom line?
Well, in the absence of disease, the digestive system is quite efficient and very much capable of processing any and all food sources, regardless of the order in which they are consumed.
In many cases, combining fruit with other foods may actually enhance their rate of digestion.
For instance, eating fruits like pineapple, kiwifruit and figs has been shown to greatly enhance the digestion of protein-rich foods and starches, as these fruits house protease enzymes that function in breaking down protein into usable amino acids. Adding to this, many of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants naturally housed in fruits and other foods have unique synergistic effects meaning they interact with each other and are most powerful when consumed together.
So, when is the best time to eat fruit?
Honestly, instead of focusing on the best time to eat fruit, just ensure you’re taking in the necessary 2-4 servings a day. Everyone has different food preferences, schedules and lifestyles so do what works best for you.
This isn’t to say that eating fruit before a meal doesn’t come with its own set of advantages.
One things for certain, treating yourself to a piece of whole fruit just prior to a meal can definitely help you eat less. This is primarily due to the rich content of dietary fiber it houses. Fiber creates a sense of fullness in the stomach that curbs appetite and reduces the urge to overeat. Eating a piece of fruit or a small fruit salad before a meal is also an ideal way to enjoy a healthy, nutritious appetizer without exceeding your daily calorie budget.
But, at the end of the day, whether you’re eating an apple, a banana or a handful of berries as a delicious prelude to your main course, in a salad or for dessert, what’s most important is that you’re getting the fruit in your diet.