Mother natures 'funny' fruit
Americans eat an average of 27 pounds of bananas per person per year—making it the most heavily consumed fruit in America.
But some carb- and calorie-conscious consumers have relegated bananas to the “do not eat” list because of the fruit’s high sugar and calorie count relative to some other fruits.
That rationale is misguided, says Jessica D. Bihuniak, Ph.D., R.D., an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “Nobody gets fat or develops diabetes from eating too many bananas,” Bihuniak says—or from eating too much of any fruit, for that matter. And as with all fruits, bananas are loaded with a bevy of nutrients, some of which promote a healthy heart, gut, and waistline.
The Carbohydrate Concern
Bananas are on the sweeter side compared with other fruit. One large banana has about 120 calories and 17 grams of sugars—that’s more than double what you’d get in 1 cup of strawberry slices, which has 53 calories and about 8 grams of sugars.
But, Bihuniak says, when nutritionists say to limit sugars in your diet, they’re talking about added sugars—the kind that’s in regular soft drinks, mixed into baked goods, and sprinkled into coffee. “If you’re eating just a banana,” Bihuniak says, “there’s no added sugar.”
Plus some of the carbohydrates in bananas come in the form of dietary fiber—3.5 grams per large banana, or about 15 percent of your daily need.
Green bananas contain a type of carb called resistant starch. (As bananas ripen, the starch turns into sugars, making the banana sweeter.) Because resistant starch isn’t easily digested, it reduces the amount of sugar released into the bloodstream, helping control blood sugar. Research also suggests that resistant starch helps maintain the balance of healthy gut microbes.
A Note for Parents
Be mindful about your kids eating a banana before bedtime, Bihuniak says, because the fruit is particularly sticky and the sugars can adhere to the teeth, increasing the risk of cavities. As always, make sure young children brush their teeth before bedtime.
Bananas Have a Bunch of Nutrients
Bananas are perhaps best known for their potassium count, with a large banana containing about 490 mg of this electrolyte—a mineral that becomes electrically charged in your bloodstream and that governs heart rate and nerve and muscle function. The body carefully maintains levels of potassium and sodium (another electrolyte) to keep fluid levels in balance.
Americans tend to consume too much sodium and not enough potassium, Bihuniak says, and when the two get out of sync, it can increase the risk of high blood pressure, and therefore up the risk for heart attack and stroke. Research also suggests that keeping those levels harmonized can be beneficial for bone health.
“Most people need 4,700 mg of potassium each day,” says Ellen Klosz, a nutritionist at Consumer Reports. “So if you eat bananas in addition to other healthy, potassium-rich foods—such as legumes, other fruits, veggies, nuts, and dairy—they can be a great way to help meet your daily need.”
Bananas also supply about a third of your daily recommended vitamin B6 need. Vitamin B6 helps regulate the levels of the amino acid homocysteine in your blood, which when unchecked can harden the arteries and increase the risk for heart attack, stroke, and blood clots, Bihuniak says.
A Versatile Package
Bananas are most easily eaten raw as a snack, but there’s a surprising number of other ways you can enjoy them. They can be crushed into a juice, puréed into a smoothie, dehydrated into a chip, and even turned into flour. You can freeze bananas and purée them into an ice-cream-like frozen dessert.
“Topping oatmeal, plain yogurt, or peanut butter and toast with banana slices is an excellent way to add nutrition and sweetness without added sugar,” Klosz says.
Bananas are also portable. “They come in their own protective cover,” Klosz says, “making them an easy, healthy snack on the go.”
And at about 56 cents per pound, they’re hard to beat at the checkout counter.
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A former scientist, using words and an audio recorder as her new research tools to untangle the health and food issues that matter most to consumers. Julia lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she cooks as much as possible. You can find her in the grocery aisle scrutinizing the fine print of every food item she puts into her cart. Follow her on Twitter @juliacalderone.