Gone bananas?

It’s not a secret that the typical Western diet – the way most of us eat – is not particularly healthy as it is high in ultra-processed foods, sugar and transfats. So, when people have a go at changing their diets for the better, many turn to fruit. Because everybody knows that fruit is good for you. Right?

The most popular fruit in the UK is the banana. And who can blame us? As fruit goes, banana is one of the easier ones to eat. It’s sweet, soft, versatile and goes down easily. You can eat it raw or fried, in sweet as well as savoury dishes, you can use it in baking and you can even make sugar-free ice cream with it (well, added-sugar-free). It even comes in its own compostable wrapper, which makes it very portable. Other fruit can be quite tart, difficult to peel, too soft and sensitive to carry around, too juicy and messy to eat on the go.

I’ve got a confession to make: I don’t particularly like fruit, never have. I still remember my mother and grandmother trying to make me eat it. I watched my sisters raiding our fruit trees and berry bushes during the summer. Not me though, I never understood what the fuss was about. Once one of my mother’s elderly aunts came to visit - I may have been 6 years old at the time -, bearing the gift of fresh strawberries from her garden. For me! I have two sisters, but I was her favourite for some reason. I politely declined the proffered punnet, because I didn’t like strawberries and said so. In a huff, my great-aunt packed them away and took them home again. I still remember that, because my sisters never let me hear the end of it. Why couldn’t I just have accepted the strawberries and then passed them on to my sisters, if I didn’t want them myself? Well, I couldn’t have known she’d take them away, could I?

I have since managed to get accustomed to eating some fruit. I’ll eat apples, oranges, tangerines, pineapple, raspberries (only blended as I hate the pips), blueberries (only blended as I hate the way they pop in the mouth, strawberries (I love them now, but only with cream) and – yes – banana. Banana is the easiest fruit to eat. If, like me, you’re not a natural and lifelong lover of fruit, you’re quite likely to turn to the banana. It’s fruit! It’s healthy! But is it?

I recently attended a talk by a doctor who has been able to reverse type 2 diabetes in 48 per cent of his patients. He sees a lot of people with diabetes, as you can imagine, and his impression is: “All diabetics love bananas!” And I have to say, I agree with him. My experience in clinical practice is that a) bananas are indeed popular among my clients – whether or not they are overweight, whether or not they have type 2 diabetes and b) not eating bananas anymore, even without changing anything else, can achieve rather spectacular results in terms of blood sugar balance and consequently weight loss. More than once have I seen clients shed an astonishing amount of weight in just two weeks when they did nothing more than cut out bananas!

So, what’s the issue? Bananas are extremely high in carbohydrates – 93% of a banana are in fact carbs. In green bananas, those carbohydrates are resistant starch, but as the banana ripens, more and more of that starch turns into sugar. And that’s when we like it best. Super soft (i.e. super ripe and high in sugar) bananas are ideal for baking – when you’re supposed to mash them with a fork – or for freezing to make ice cream. It’s the sweetness that makes bananas taste good, and it’s the sweetness that messes with our body chemistry, insulin levels and weight. For that reason, bananas really are not the most ideal fruit to turn to if you are diabetic, pre-diabetic, want to lose weight, have an inflammatory condition or are in pain for any reason … in short: All the reasons why you would avoid sugar. Your body cells are unable to make a difference between ‘natural sugar’ or ‘added sugar’. Once you have digested it is just … sugar. The effect is the same.

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Limit your fruit intake to a minimum and focus on berries. Apart from being very low in sugar, berries are also great sources of phytonutrients, especially flavonoids. This is what gives them their vibrant dark red, blue and purple colour. Flavonoids are great antioxidants, have anti-inflammatory properties and really … I can only think about good things to say about them. About 600g of berries contain as much sugar as 50g (about ½ small) banana.

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But it’s not all bad. If you eat green bananas, you can benefit from their resistant starches. (For more on resistant starches, click here). The greener the banana, the more resistant starch. Green bananas may actually improve insulin resistance and keep blood glucose low after meals, so THIS kind of banana is actually really good for people with diabetes.

Bananas are a good source of vitamin B6, which plays a key role in metabolism, brain function and hormone balance. Bananas also contain potassium, a mineral involved in blood pressure control and heart health. The amount of potassium, by the way, is not affected by the level of ripeness of your banana, so green bananas will do.

So, are bananas healthy or not? That depends … on the state of your health, your gut bacteria (did you know that some the little creatures are able to extract even more sugar from your food?), your requirements, your medication, how often you eat the fruit and what you want to achieve. If you are keen to lose a bit of weight and frequently eat bananas, try and see what happens when you take a break from them for a couple of weeks.

If you would like personal support and tips on weight loss tailored to yourself, a plan that fits your lifestyle, get in touch: melanie@nutriliciousnutrition.co.uk.