Tips for a healthy — and fruitful — New Year

Today, I’m going to talk about fruit. But don’t worry. I won’t talk about the  new, politically correct laws signed by “Governor Fruitcake,” which just took effect this year in California and will take the citizens further down the road to perdition. No — I want to talk about the latest news on the health effects of eating actual fruits and nuts.

Of course, you may have a hard time finding certain fruits in some parts of the country at this time of year. Although, nationwide distribution pretty much put an end to that problem (aside from the increased costs).

Thirty years ago, I remember one famous study by my colleague Walt Willett at Harvard found a strong association between year-round consumption of strawberries in an elderly Boston-area population and a lower risk of certain cancers. Back in the season of their infatuation with beta-carotene, the experts at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) quickly jumped to the conclusion that strawberries were strong anti-cancer fruits because they were high in beta-carotene.

There was one big problem with that theory. I bothered to check the actual nutrient content of strawberries and found they have no beta-carotene!

It turns out the ability to eat strawberries year-round in Boston was simply a proxy (or “stand-in”) for high socioeconomic status. The cost of strawberries in Boston during winter was $6 or more per pound — 30 years ago.

So the poor were effectively “banned in Boston” from eating strawberries year-round. Only the wealthy ate them through the dead of winter. And being wealthy is associated with many factors that reduce the risks of these cancers.

Keep your fruit bowl full year-round

Fortunately, strawberries aren’t expensive everywhere during the winter. One of the things I like about Florida is that strawberries and other fruits are plentiful year-round.

In fact, between February and March, the Tampa Bay area boasts several annual strawberry festivals. February is actually the beginning of spring in the Deep South. It’s two months past the winter solstice, so the sun starts getting strong again. And many plants are in bloom and even begin fruiting. I think it also makes Florida a healthier climate, as my accountant carefully explained when we first moved back there.

In California, as well, you could watch the fresh strawberry crops come North from Mexico and Central America in February-March, to Southern California in April-May, to northern California in June, and finally into the Pacific Northwest, where some of the best strawberries in the world are grown on the islands in the straits of Juan de Fuca between Washington state and British Columbia in summer.

The best fruits for people with Type II diabetes

Of course, regardless of the increased availability, some so-called experts warn patients with Type II diabetes to limit fruit intake (and forgo the many health benefits) because fruits contain natural sugar, or fructose.

But that’s bad advice.

The body metabolizes fructose differently than sucrose (table sugar, as found in confections). It also digests sucrose differently when it comes in the natural food matrix. In general, for most people with diabetes, all kinds of fruits are fine to eat.

Fruits contain high amounts of healthy fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. Different fruits are higher or lower in different vitamins, such as A, B, and C. So, as always with diet, eating a diversity of different fruits is a good choice.

But there are a few fruits that are particularly beneficial to people with Type II diabetes.

Apples, oranges, and pears are good choices because they slowly release their fructose (fruit sugar) content into the blood stream.

Blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and other berries are also good choices because they contain very high concentrations of nutrients. Studies show blueberries help boost energy, brain function and memory, and even help ward off dementia. While the blueberry season is long past, new blueberry powdered extracts are available in water-soluble supplements that you can add to juice or other beverages.

Also, pineapple and papaya have natural enzymes that aid healthy digestion (but beware of the GMO fruit now grown in Hawaii). These tropical fresh fruits can be expensive — but adding some to a fruit salad is a cost-effective way to get all the benefits.

You should always eat the skins of fruits with edible skins like apples and pears. Which is why it’s important to always opt for organic varieties of these fruits. (On the other hand, you can skip the organic label for fruits with inedible skins such as bananas and pineapples. It isn’t necessary to pay more for skin that you peel.)

Grapes are another great year-round option, but they do contain high amounts of sugar. That’s why wine makers use them. To make wine, you ferment the grape sugars and turn it into alcohol. Continued fermentation leads to acetic acid or wine vinegars.

While grapes may not be the best option for people with Type II diabetes, moderate consumption of wine is a healthy choice for diabetics. But you should limit your consumption of grape juice and other fruit juice.

Overall, drinking fruit juice doesn’t provide the same benefits as eating the whole fruit. Most juices don’t have the proteins, fibers, essential oils, or all of the vitamins found in whole fruits. They do contain all the sugar but without the food matrix that slows sugar absorption into the bloodstream. And without the stress-reducing health benefits of the alcohol you find in wine.

I suggest limiting fruit juice consumption to 4 ounces or less per meal. (Have you ever wondered about the small size of juice glasses?)

Overall, everyone — including patients with diabetes — should strive to eat three to four fruits per day, year-round. It will bring along some rays of sunshine that the plant used to make all those healthy nutrients.

Have a piece of fruit with or after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That leaves room for a healthy mid-day snack of an apple, orange, pear, or handful of berries, or serving of fresh fruit salad.