No matter how you slice it or dice it, when it comes to eating fruit, you really can’t go wrong. Studies have correlated an increased intake of fruit to reduced risk of many chronic diseases. The health benefits of fruits can be attributed to their vitamin, mineral, phytochemical, and fiber content — yet there is quite a range of these nutritive values across the many varieties of fruit. If you are wondering “what are the healthiest fruits”, the answer is quite simple: Every single fruit has certain health benefits; therefore, it is recommended to include a rich array of fruit in your daily diet.
Overall dietary fruit recommendations
Recommended intake of fruit varies according to sex and age, but current federal guidelines recommend that the average adult consume about 1½ to 2 cups of fruit daily. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only around 10% of Americans consume enough fruit daily. The other 90% of Americans are consequently missing out on the essential nutrients fruit provides. Fruit is a good source of potassium and fiber, both of which are under-consumed nutrients in the U.S., a significant public health concern. Other common nutrients in fruit that are also found to be lacking in many American diets include magnesium, folate, and vitamin C.
The healthiest fruit to eat
When comparing different fruits to determine the relative health benefits of each, three of the more important factors are the levels of fiber and sugar and the Glycemic Index (GI) values:
Most fruits are significant contributors of dietary fiber. As described in What Is Fiber? Everything You Need To Know, fiber is a healthful component of food that is associated with decreased risk of many disease states — ranging from gastrointestinal disorders to cardiometabolic diseases to certain cancers. Additionally, fiber slows digestion, helping to prevent blood sugar spikes; and fiber helps keep you regular while contributing to a feeling of fullness, helpful for weight management.
The notion that fruit is unhealthy because of its natural sugar content has been largely debunked by the scientific and medical communities. In fact, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends that even individuals with diabetes, who are typically advised to limit their overall carbohydrate intake, include fruit as part of a balanced diet. Fruits contain beneficial vitamins, minerals, fiber, and disease-fighting phytochemicals. Furthermore, comparing the naturally occurring sugar in whole fruits with the so-called “added sugars” in sugar-sweetened beverages is like equating a can of soda to an apple: Would you call those equal?
Glycemic Index (GI) values
As explained in What Is The Glycemic Index?, the GI value of a food indicates how quickly the particular food may raise blood sugar levels (on a scale from 1 to 100). Fruits that are higher in fiber generally have a lower GI value, as fiber helps slow spikes in blood sugar.
It is also important to know that the amount of sugar increases as fruit ripens: The riper a fruit, the higher the GI value. For example, research has shown that a very ripe banana with brown spots has a higher GI value and would impact blood sugar more than one that was green.
According to the Glycemic Index, the lower the value, the less impact a particular food may have on blood sugar levels.
- Low GI foods range from 1-55
- Medium GI foods range from 56-69
- High GI foods have values of 70 and up
It is important to consider total carbohydrates, sugars, and fiber in addition to the GI value when selecting fruits. Although you cannot alter a food’s GI value, you can pair it with other foods containing fat and protein to help minimize blood sugar spikes. For example: dip your apple slices in nut butter, make a watermelon salad with feta cheese, or wrap a piece of prosciutto around a slice of honeydew melon.
You should also be aware that by modifying fruit from its natural form, the GI value can be raised. For example, when fruits such as apples or pears are peeled or when an orange is juiced, the fiber content is significantly decreased; or, when fruits like grapes or cranberries are dried, their sugars become more concentrated, increasing the GI values.
The top five favorite fruits: How healthy are they?
According to a 2021 survey from the International Fresh Produce Association, bananas top the list of the most popular fruits in the U.S., followed by strawberries, grapes, apples, and watermelon. Although popularity doesn’t equate to health, these favorite fruits do have the following significant health merits:
Per one large banana: ~100 calories, 27 grams total carbohydrate (3 g fiber, 14 g sugar), GI: 51.
A great source of soluble fiber, the banana is also loaded with potassium, an important electrolyte that is lost through perspiration. Too little potassium can cause fatigue, muscle weakness, and cramps. The natural “packaging” of a banana makes it an even more ideal grab-and-go snack.
- To reduce the impact on blood sugar levels, especially if you are eating an extra ripe banana, pair it with a handful of nuts to add healthy fat and protein.
Per one cup of sliced strawberries: ~50 calories, 12 grams total carbohydrate (2 g fiber, 7 g sugar), GI: 40.
In addition to ranking as second in popularity, strawberries also get a high score for their nutritional value. One serving of these little nutrient powerhouses provides nearly 150% of the recommended daily value for vitamin C, in addition to providing folate, potassium, and fiber. The rich red color of strawberries comes from phytochemicals that protect cellular health and provide beneficial effects that link strawberry intake to reduced risk of cardiometabolic disease.
Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are also healthful berries that rank high in nutritional value and are considered low glycemic fruits.
- Try your favorite berries layered in a parfait with Greek yogurt and nuts or granola for a delicious and nutritious breakfast or dessert.
Per one cup: ~104 calories, 27 grams total carbohydrate (1.4 g fiber, 23 g sugar), GI: 46.
Coming in third on the list of most popular fruits, the healthy nutrient profile of grapes is also concentrated into a small package. Grapes, and the wines made from them, are known for their content of polyphenols, phytochemicals with antioxidant properties shown in studies to impact markers of oxidative stress and decrease markers of inflammation. The skin and seeds of grapes provide fiber value, which unfortunately (sorry, folks) you will not get in a glass of wine.
- For an attractive appetizer, grapes can be skewered with pieces of cheese and/or turkey for added protein and fat.
- Frozen grapes make a sweet treat for dessert.
Apples and pears
Per one medium sized apple: ~100 calories, 25 grams total carbohydrate (5 g fiber, 20 g sugar), GI: 40.
Ranking as the fourth most popular fruit likely due to their tastiness, portability and versatility, the old adage that an apple a day keeps the doctor away is in fact a true statement. Apples are loaded with fiber, contain vitamin C, and provide heart-protective phytochemicals.
Like apples, pears are considered a “pome fruit” — meaning they contain a core of small seeds surrounded by a membrane. Pears are an excellent source of fiber, providing 25% of the recommended daily value in one medium-sized fruit.
- For a nutrient-rich snack that provides healthy fat and protein, dip apple slices in peanut butter or Greek yogurt and be sure to keep the skin on for extra fiber.
- Pears are versatile and can be eaten alone, sliced into salads, or added to many baked goods or savory dishes.
Per one cup of watermelon: ~46 calories, 11 grams total carbohydrate (.6 g fiber, 9 g sugar), GI: 72.
Rounding out the top five most popular fruits, watermelon is the quintessential summer fruit. Not only is watermelon tasty and nutritious, but with a water content of over 90%, it helps keep us hydrated during the warm summer months. Watermelon is loaded with vitamin C, beta-carotene, and potassium. Plus, watermelon is a good source of a red antioxidant rich pigment, called lycopene, that has been linked to the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and certain cancers. Watermelon also contains L-citrulline, an amino acid precursor to nitric oxide that may benefit cardiometabolic health. And while watermelon ranks as a high GI food, it has a low Glycemic Load (GL) — largely because of its high water content — and is generally considered safe for diabetics, non-diabetics and everyone in between. (Learn more: Glycemic Index vs. Glycemic Load: What’s The Difference?)
Other melons, such as cantaloupe and honeydew, don’t rank quite as high on the GI index as watermelon and pack a nice punch of vitamin C, potassium, folate, and a dab of fiber.
- Try making a melon salad with cucumber, mint and feta cheese; or, just slice it and enjoy as a snack or dessert.
Per one medium sized orange: ~60 calories, 15 grams total carbohydrate (3 g fiber, 12 g sugar), GI: 48.
Fruits in the citrus family are well known for their vitamin C content, but they also significantly contribute to the daily need for potassium and folate. The white pulp of citrus fruits provides fiber, which is essentially stripped away when citrus is consumed in its most popular form as juice. Citrus fruits are highly acidic, a factor that contributes to their low GI rating. Research suggests that the phytochemicals in citrus fruit contribute to their treasure trove of protective effects against a wide range of chronic disease states.
Per one cup of sliced peach: ~50 calories, 15 grams total carbohydrate (2 g fiber, 12 g sugar), GI: 42.
Also known as “drupes,” stone fruits are those that contain a “stone” in the center, containing the seed. Fragrant, juicy peaches are among the top 10 most popular fruits and they provide a delicious boost of vitamin C, carotenoids, potassium, and fiber (especially when the fuzzy skin is kept intact). Nectarines are the hairless cousin of the peach and are a bit more on the tart side. Other popular stone fruits include plums, cherries, and apricots — all of which provide a unique array of phytochemicals that have been shown in research to benefit human health.
Per one cup of pineapple: ~85 calories, 22 grams total carbohydrate (2 g fiber, 16 g sugar), GI: 51.
Munch on mango, papaya, guava, and pineapple for delicious tropical flavors filled with vitamin C, beta-carotene, and potassium. These fruits also contain a wide array of phytochemicals, like the enzyme bromelain found in pineapple and papain found in papaya, both of which have anti-inflammatory benefits. Kiwis, considered by some as a tropical fruit, are worthy of a mention here. Kiwis have small seeds that remain intact, contributing to their fiber content.
- While most people tend to peel kiwi before eating them, consider eating them whole, as the high-fiber peel is perfectly edible (just like an apple or a peach) after it has been given a good scrub.
Is it a fruit or a vegetable?
Per one small avocado: ~200 calories, 12 grams total carbohydrate (9 g fiber, 1 g sugar), GI: 15.
Often mistaken as a vegetable, the avocado is a very nutrient-dense food that is officially classified as a fruit. Avocados are an excellent source of fiber and one of the only fruits that contains a significant source of healthy fat. Additionally, avocados contain at least 20% of the daily value of six different vitamins and minerals, with potassium content rivaling that of bananas.
- Avocados are famously used in guacamole, on avocado toast, and even provide a nice smooth texture and nutrient boost to smoothies or creamy desserts.
Per one cup of chopped tomato: ~32 calories, 7 grams total carbohydrate (2 g fiber, 4 g sugar), GI: 15.
Also often confused as a vegetable, a tomato is a fruit representing an excellent source of vitamin C. Tomatoes contain the same cell-protective phytochemical (lycopene) that is found in watermelon, and consumption of them has been linked to reduced risk for cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer.
Tips for selecting the healthiest fruit
- Look at the color: The more colorful the fruits, the more health benefits they tend to offer. All those disease fighting phytochemicals we’ve been talking about contribute to the vibrant range of colors found in fruits.
- If the skin is edible, then eat it: Fruits with edible skins and peels — such as pears, apples, stone fruits, and kiwi — are great sources of fiber. Fiber helps with blood sugar management, keeps you regular, and contributes to the feeling of fullness.
- Choose fresh or frozen fruit if possible: Canned fruits typically have more total carbs and sugar when the liquid within the can is fruit juice or syrup.
- Go easy on juices: Although the USDA Food Guidance System, MyPlate, considers 100% fruit juice as a part of your daily servings for fruit, juices tend to be higher-carb, devoid of fiber, and often include added sugars.
What fruits should be avoided?
There are really no fruits that should be completely avoided or demonized — assuming portions are controlled, minimally processed fruits are selected, and fruits are paired with appropriate amounts of protein, fat and fiber. Bear in mind, too, that one person’s blood sugar may respond differently to a certain fruit than another individual’s blood sugar. For those who feel they might need to accurately ascertain the glycemic effects of certain fruits, the use of a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) may be worth consideration.
Whether you choose fresh or frozen, make it your goal to get more fruit into every meal. Fruit provides many essential nutrients — including vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other health-promoting compounds (including phytochemicals). When selecting fruits, look at their nutritional content: total carbs, sugars, and fiber, in particular. Consider pairing fruit with protein and healthy fat to minimize an impact on your blood sugar level. Whether you slice a banana or peach into your morning oatmeal, spread avocado on your toast, mix blueberries with nuts and a few chunks of cheese for a mid-afternoon snack, or slice apples into your greens for a heart-healthy salad, your health will benefit. So get slicing and dicing.