Some kids love fruit and will happily ask for oranges, strawberries and apples. For other kids, unless fruit is in the form of jelly and paired with peanut butter, they won’t go near it.
But either way, caregivers might worry. Isn’t fruit full of sugars? Is fruit juice OK? Is my child getting enough nutrients if the only fruit they eat is frozen blueberries? Mayo Clinic dietitian Tara Schmidt, M. Ed., RDN dispels some myths about fruit.
How much fruit should a child eat?
Ideally half of your child’s plate will be filled with a combination of fruits and vegetables. But we all live in the real world where kids can be picky eaters and fresh fruit can be expensive or difficult to find, so no one expects perfection. How many servings of fruit is right for your child will depend on their age, size and activity level. A preschooler might need the equivalent of one cup of fruit each day while a teenager might need two cups. Kids with limited vegetable intake would benefit from eating more fruit.
1 cup of fruit is:
- 1 medium piece of whole fruit like a banana or apple.
- 1 cup of fruit like blueberries or chunks of fruit.
- ½ cup of dried fruit.
- 1 cup of 100% fruit juice.
Fruits give your child essential nutrients that their bodies need to grow and function. Those include potassium, fiber, vitamin C and folate. The nutrients help with nearly every aspect of body health, including bowel function, wound healing and dental health.
Myth #1: Fruit has too much sugar
Schmidt: It’s really important to differentiate what is added sugar and what is natural sugar in fruit. No one stirred added sugar into your apple or banana.
When it comes to whole fruit, the sugar, called fructose, is all naturally occurring. The fruit itself also has vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other benefits. Fruit also contains fiber, which slows down the absorption of fructose into the bloodstream, so it doesn’t affect the body the same way added sugar does.
With foods or juices that have fruit as an ingredient, the nice thing about the most up-to-date nutrition label is that there’s a row that identifies added sugar. The label on a cup of strawberry yogurt might say total sugars 19 grams, added sugar 13 grams. That means 6 grams of sugar are naturally occurring in the milk used to make the yogurt, or in the strawberries. An additional 9 grams of processed sugar was added to sweeten the product.
About 80% of the American population is not consuming the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. As a dietitian, I really don’t want to discourage eating fruit because it has naturally occurring fructose when so many people aren’t getting what they should.
Myth #2: Drinking juice is like drinking pure sugar
Schmidt: I would prefer kids eating the whole fruit, but to say fruit juice is like drinking pure sugar isn’t always accurate, either. Compared to a soda — which really is pure sugar — 100% fruit juice with no added sugar does include natural fructose, but it also contains nutrients from the fruit, and possibly a small amount of fiber if there is pulp. Again, you want to avoid added sugars and look for 100% juice.
If you think about a glass of orange juice versus an orange, there are a lot of differences. Even if you juiced the orange yourself, you are not going to get much or any of the pulp and fiber, so you get less of the nutrients than we get in the whole fruit. That’s why it’s preferable that kids eat the whole fruits, rather than just juice. Also, kids shouldn’t have any juice in their first year. Older kids can have some juice, usually 4 to 6 ounces, which is pretty small.
Myth #3: Fresh fruit is best
Schmidt: Fresh and frozen fruits are actually pretty equivalent nutritionally speaking. In fact, the flash freezing process typically includes picking fruit at the peak of ripeness and freezing it right away, which helps it maintain nutrients. Fresh fruit can lose nutrients in the time it travels across the country or sits in your refrigerator.
And especially for little kids, sometimes canned fruit is safer. It’s more safe for them to eat a can of Mandarin oranges versus eating an orange, which can be difficult for a young child to chew thoroughly. But we would want that canned fruit to be either in water or in 100% juice. No syrups, ideally, because that’s where the added sugar is coming in.
Do be mindful of dried fruit, though. It’s actually hard to find unsweetened dried fruit. There could be added salt. There could be added sugar.
Myth #4: It doesn’t matter that my kid doesn’t eat vegetables.
Schmidt: Most of the time, fruits and vegetables have the same types of nutrients, so the vitamins and the minerals that you’re getting from fruit also are in vegetables. If your kid does really well with fruit consumption, like many kids do, it’s not essential that they have this beautiful or wide variety of veggies in their diet yet, because they’re likely getting those vitamins and minerals from the fruit.
The easiest way to identify the vitamins and the minerals in fruits and vegetables is color. Purple fruits and purple vegetables have similar nutrients, but they’re different from the nutrients in red, orange, yellow, and white fruits and vegetables.
Even though kids can get most of the vitamins and minerals they need from fruit, we still want to make sure to expose them to vegetables because we know it can take kids 10 to 12 times seeing a new food to accept it.
Exposing can mean putting a little bit of a food on their plate and letting the child decide what to do with it. They pick at it or lick it or squish it between their fingers. Eventually they might try it and learn they like it. This is allowing them to go at their own pace.
Myth #5: Carbohydrates are bad for you
Schmidt: Multiple food groups that are healthy have carbohydrates. Fruit contains carbohydrates, but fruit also has a ton of vitamins and minerals. So you won’t convince me that carbohydrates as a whole are bad.
The carbohydrates to limit are the ultraprocessed snack foods with added sugar and added salt. But it’s not about limiting the carbohydrate, it’s about limiting very processed food with added sugar and added salt. There’s a difference between a cupcake and a banana, even though both contain carbohydrates.
Bonus Myth: White foods are bad for you
Schmidt: What’s wrong with mushrooms? What’s wrong with onions? Nothing. They’re still nutritious. It’s true that we’d rather people eat whole grains — which typically have a browner look to them — instead of eating processed sugars and refined grains, which tend to be white. But white foods can be healthy, and brown foods can be unhealthy. For example, brown sugar is sugar with molasses. That’s not better than white sugar.
If it’s a plant food in its whole form — meaning no added or subtracted ingredients — and has undergone minimal or no processing, then it’s probably a good food for you or your kids to eat.
Parents are doing the best that they can with the time, money and knowledge that they have. So it’s also important to not pressure and blame parents who are doing the best that they can in a food environment that doesn’t make this easy. Maybe they have a picky eater. Maybe they’re on a limited budget or live in a place where there’s a lot of fast-food restaurants and no fresh produce. That is not within one person’s control. Please be proud of all the efforts you’re making as a parent to teach your child healthy eating skills.
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