The 9 Healthiest Fruits To Beat Inflammation, Lose Weight & Boost Brain Health
Leah Johansen, M.D., practices alongside Robert Rountree, M.D., at Boulder Wellcare in Boulder, Colorado. Johansen earned her medical degree from Trinity School of Medicine and completed her residency training in family and community medicine at Case Western Reserve University.
In a strict sense, it's impossible to rank the healthiest fruits. They're all good, and most of us don't eat as many servings as we should. In fact, one large survey found that a poor diet was the leading cause of death and disability in the United States—worse even than smoking—and one of the most damaging aspects of that crummy diet was not eating enough fruit.
Knowing which fruits to prioritize can go a long way in boosting your health while eliminating that all too common choice paralysis you experience in the produce section of Whole Foods Market. So we tapped some of our favorite nutrition experts for their top picks.
What makes a fruit extra healthy?
Before we dive into our list of healthiest fruits, it's important to have a rough understanding of what makes a particular fruit a standout choice. So we asked nutrition experts for some perspective.
"I tend to encourage high-fiber, lower-sugar fruits and to watch portion sizes. Ideally, you also should consume fruit in the context of a balanced meal or snack that also provides protein and/or fat," says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, registered dietitian and health coach.
Here are some other good tips to keep in mind:
- Colorful is good, the deeper the better. The fruit's immune system lies in its skin in the form of dark phytonutrient pigments. These phytonutrients (e.g., anthocyanins in blueberries and carotenoids in apricots) protect the fruit from environmental stressors like the sun's UV rays and insects, and they're also what impart many of fruits' powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. "These phytochemicals stress our own cells in small, healthy ways that stimulate our immune system's antioxidant defenses against threats like inflammation, cancer, and premature aging," says Maya Shetreat, M.D., integrative pediatric neurologist, author of The Dirt Cure, and an all-around plant food expert.
- Tart is good, the tarter the better. Some plants also evolved to contain phytonutrient compounds that impart a sharp taste to their fruit in order to ward off predators (e.g., the tanginess of raspberries or the pucker of pomegranates). Much like phytonutrient pigments, these tart compounds often indicate a richer storehouse of micronutrients and phytonutrients that function as powerful antioxidants.
- Organic means more antioxidants. Organic fruits and vegetables have also been shown to contain, on average, 20 to 40 percent more antioxidants than their conventionally grown counterparts—so if you do opt for organic, any of the choices below will be even healthier. Plus, you'll be steering clear of literally hundreds of pesticides.
- Both fresh and frozen are good options. All fruits lose nutrients over time, too, so it's important to eat them while they're fresh. Buying locally grown vegetables from a farmers market or food co-op is great for this reason but not essential. Buying organic frozen fruits is great, too, as they're frozen at peak freshness.
All that said, don't get stuck on just one fruit being healthy or the healthiest, says Dr. Shetreat. Develop your palate and go for variety. The broadest range of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients is what you're after. Use this list simply as a guide to help you narrow down your choices when you're feeling indecisive.
9 of the healthiest fruits on the planet.
Even with the guidelines above, we wanted the experts to help us identify which fruits really go above and beyond, based on their nutrient profile and the latest research. So we asked Cording and Dr. Shetreat to share some top picks that would make it onto their healthiest fruits list:
With a quick scan of this list, it's safe to say berries are the equivalent of leafy greens in the vegetable world. They're packed with fiber (8 grams per cup—that's about a third of your daily needs!), contain a variety of phytonutrients, and their net antioxidant effect is, gram for gram, second only to herbs and spices.
Additionally, a 2011 study showed that consuming 60 grams of black raspberry powder slowed the growth rate of colorectal cancer cells and the blood vessels that supply them in two to four weeks. Researchers believe that the fruit phytochemicals stimulate our own enzyme defenses that neutralize cellular waste products known as free radicals, which, left unchecked, promote cellular deterioration and lead to cancerous mutations.
Admittedly, most of the berry/cancer research has measured the effect of a berry extract on human cancer cells in a test tube. But Dr. Shetreat believes that berries as a complementary therapy for cancers of the colon, prostate, and breast looks promising. The colon cancer connection makes especially good intuitive sense, she adds, since the fiber in the fruit feeds good bacteria in the gut, which then produce organic acids, which then feed the cells that protect the colon's lining. Bonus: Raspberries are also a great source of vitamin C.
Try it: This beet, apple, and raspberry salad with herbed millet is loaded with filling, digestion-friendly fiber.
These little red berries pack a similar phytochemical punch as their berry brethren but with an added bonus. They have been well-studied for their ability to protect against the strains of bacteria that cause urinary tract infections (UTIs). They’re not an antibiotic and may not do much for a full-blown UTI but rather a prophylactic, "preventing bacteria from latching on to the epithelial cells that line the urinary tract," says Dr. Shetreat.
Try it: This cranberry thyme spritz lets you imbibe without the guilt. Just ensure that the cranberry juice you’re using doesn’t have any added sugars, as sugar can stimulate the growth of bacteria.
Smaller, tarter wild blueberries are phytonutrient powerhouses. Wild blueberries are one of the top fruit antioxidants, according to the Nutrient Data Laboratory from the US Dept of Agriculture. But even the plump blueberries at your local grocery store or farmers market are remarkable. They have a pleasingly sweet taste but are fairly low in calories and low on the glycemic index, says Dr. Shetreat. In fact, the best research suggests that berries are positively good for blood sugar control. The fiber in the fruit forms a gel in the gut that can slow down the release of glucose into the bloodstream, and certain phytonutrients in the fruit may actually block sugar from being absorbed through the gut wall and into the bloodstream.
Additionally, research suggests that blueberries help protect the heart, lowering "bad" LDL cholesterol and slowing plaque buildup, thanks in part to their soluble pectin fibers. While other research suggests blueberries help protect the brain from oxidative stress and may be protective against dementia. "They’re also included in the MIND diet, which was designed to protect against Alzheimer's disease," says Cording.
Try it: This brain-boosting blueberry smoothie will keep you focused all morning long.
4. Tart cherries
All cherries are loaded with the usual polyphenolic phytonutrient suspects as well as a good dose of heart-healthy potassium. But tart cherries, especially in the form of tart cherry juice, have been the best studied for their anti-inflammatory effects, including their ability to reduce joint pain and muscle soreness after exercise. A 2018 review of the health benefits also found some evidence for a reduction in hemoglobin A1C, which indicates improved blood sugar control.
Try it: This beet and cherry smoothie is the ideal post-workout drink.
Elderberries are a special case, says Dr. Shetreat, who grows them in her backyard in the Bronx. They're not meant to be eaten raw—they'll cause stomach upset—but when they're cooked and reduced into a syrup or a jam, they're remarkably effective against the flu. In Dr. Shetreat's family, a daily teaspoon of the syrup usually wards off that unwelcome wintertime visitor when taken at the first signs of illness. Research also suggests that the syrup may fight back against MRSA (methicillin-resistant staph aureus) and reduce inflammation in the brain.
Try it: Here's how to make an elderberry syrup shot at home—which our health editor recommends taking before every flight!
Pomegranate seeds and their juice-filled compartments are phytonutrient giants, with two to three times as much antioxidant activity as green tea or red wine, according to the U.C.–Berkeley School of Nutrition. Not surprisingly, there is tantalizing preliminary research that suggests pomegranates can help protect against cancer, lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, and improve cognitive function. In one small study, a group of older subjects who drank 8 ounces of pomegranate juice daily for four weeks scored higher on memory tests than a control group. One downside: They're not the easiest fruit to eat. If you opt for a pomegranate juice, mix it with seltzer to keep the sugar content under control.
Try it: This Turkish-spiced wild rice salad contains whole pomegranate seeds and is the perfect sweet-savory combo.
7. Red grapes
Red grapes, like the red wine they produce, may be beneficial thanks to one of their polyphenolic compounds. Resveratrol became a media darling when a Harvard researcher produced some preliminary animal studies suggesting that the compound was a cellular fountain of youth. The jury is still out on that one, but there's a large pool of literature suggesting that resveratrol is important for heart health, Dr. Shetreat says, reducing arterial plaque buildup and lowering blood pressure.
8. Citrus fruits
Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, and lemons have traditionally been touted as great sources of vitamin C, which is important for maintaining immune defenses during the winter cold and flu season. They're packed with folate, too, "which is important for supporting stable levels of the pleasure-inducing brain chemical dopamine," says Cording.
Citrus is also a double-threat, Dr. Shetreat says: The pulpy fruit contains most of the vitamins and minerals, while the skin, with its characteristically bitter flavor, contains loads of phytonutrients. While most of us don't eat orange or lemon rind, you can shave some off with a zester and add it to smoothies, or you can buy kumquats and eat the fruit and the skin.
Try it: These warm dates with orange zest and olive oil are what Mediterranean dessert dreams are made of.
Sure, apples aren't the most glamorous fruit—you're not likely to find them on many superfood roundups—but they have plenty of virtues, not the least of which is that they store and travel well. Apples are also an excellent source of the phytonutrient quercetin (so are red onions, one of the healthiest vegetables), which, in a number of studies has been shown to reduce inflammation and counteract asthma and allergy symptoms. Because apples are so packed with fiber, both soluble and insoluble, they are also much more filling than their modest number of calories would suggest. A number of studies have shown that apples can provide a helpful assist in a weight-loss program.
Try it: This apple-raspberry crisp combines two super-fruits in one!
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