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Americans annually eat an average of 27 pounds of bananas, which makes them the country’s most heavily consumed fruit.
But some consumers who are carb- and calorie-conscious 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, 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.
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 a cup of strawberry slices, which has 53 calories and about eight 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 blended into 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.”
In addition, 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 caveat for parents: Be mindful about having your kids eat 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 are perhaps best known for their potassium count, with a large banana containing about 490 milligrams 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, heart attack and stroke. Research also suggests that keeping those levels harmonized can be beneficial for bone health.
“Most people need 4,700 milligrams 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.”
One banana would also supply about a third of your daily recommended vitamin B6. This vitamin 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.
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, pureed into a smoothie, dehydrated into a chip and even turned into flour. You can freeze bananas and puree 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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