Inside the Strange World of 'Fruitarians,' Who Only Eat Raw Fruit

An increasing number of health and wellness bloggers are encouraging their fans to adopt fruitarianism—the controversial fruit-based diet advocated by Steve Jobs in the 80s.

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Sep 3 2016, 1:25pm

Illustration by Juliette Toma

Folk wisdom tells us an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Some bloggers are taking the saying to a new extreme, making fruit the sole component of their diets. They follow an extreme form of vegetarianism called fruitarianism; the diet varies, but some followers eat fruit for 75 percent or more of their daily food intake. Most fruitarians follow a raw diet. Others go a step further, only eating fruit that falls off trees or vines. As Hugh Grant discovers in this date scene in Notting Hill, they want to refrain from harming the plant that created the fruit.

Bloggers have contributed to the diet's rise in popularity. Norwegian brothers Mikkel and Mads Gisle Johnsen started chronicling their fruit-based diet on their YouTube channel, Sweet Natural Living, after they became interested in health. "Every animal has a diet specific to their species, and they always eat their food raw," Mikkel Johnsen says. "This made me wonder about the natural diet for humans. I soon realized that even though we can eat a wide variety of foods to survive, that doesn't mean it's our ideal diet."

After investigating raw food, he found fruit: "The only food that appeals to our senses in its raw state, as it appears in nature, is fruit. Fruit is the only food that looks, smells and tastes good to us as it is." Since starting a fruitarian diet, Johnsen believes he has achieved a superior level of health. "My shit don't stink (seriously)," he says. "My mind is clear. My motivation is high. My energy levels are consistent. My blood sugar is excellent. I could go on and on."

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Fruitarianism is becoming more and more mainstream. Almost 600 people came together last year to convene at the Woodstock Fruit Festival, paying more than $1000 each for lectures, opportunities to meet other fruitarians, and unlimited fruit and vegetables (attendees consume over 100,000 pounds of produce at the event). The fruit eaters liken the diet's effects to a spiritual experience.

"I've experienced fantastic health and vitality since adopting a fruitarian diet," writes ultra-marathoner and Woodstock Fruit Festival admin Michael Arnstein on his blog the Fruitarian. "I've become almost super-human when compared to the standard population in both physical, mental, and emotional strengths." Arnstein eats 25 to 30 pounds of fruit a day to maintain his energy levels, claiming his diet has made him immune to illness and allowed him to excel as an elite runner.

Steve Jobs is perhaps the world's most famous believer in fruitarianism. He often took his diet to further extremes, claiming that his eating patterns helped fuel his creativity. According to the biography Steve Jobs, he once proclaimed, "I'm a fruitarian and I will only eat leaves picked by virgins in the moonlight." Fruitarianism even inspired him to name his company Apple: He visited an orchard and found apples "fun, spirited, and not intimidating." At some point, he would reportedly eat only apples and carrots for weeks at a time, often developing an orange glow.

Mikkel and Mads Gisle Johnsen run the YouTube channel Sweet Natural Living. Screencap via YouTube

Jobs diet would later prove the dangers of fruitarianism. In an attempt at method acting before he played Jobs for a biopic, thespian Ashton Kutcher attempted to follow his diet, eating only fruit for a month. The diet backfired: "I ended up in the hospital two days before we started shooting the movie," Kutcher said at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. "I was doubled over in pain, and my pancreas levels were completely out of whack, which was terrifying."

Fruitarians often experience these symptoms. "Fruitarians often have low levels of vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids, which can lead to anemia, fatigue, and a weak immune system," says Lisa DeFazio, a certified registered dietician, cookbook author, and health expert. "When you eliminate vitamins, fats, and proteins, your body goes into starvation mode, which slows down your metabolism to conserve energy."

She sees the benefits of lots of fruit in the diet, but warns dieters to also consume other foods to stay balanced and healthy: "Fruits are high in vitamins and antioxidants, including vitamin C and beta-carotene, and research shows fruits can reduce the risk of many diseases," she says. "It's critical to include nuts, seeds, and vegetables with every meal to provide the fat and protein you need. Protein and fat slow down blood sugar spikes from eating fruit."

You should be forced to be vegan.

Despite the potential health risks, YouTubers make fruitarianism look like a lifestyle. Freelee the Banana Girl is one of the internet's most popular fruitarian vloggers. (She was not available for comment at press time.) An attractive, blonde, peppy Australian, Freelee documents her daily life as a fruitarian for her 723,387 followers while wearing bikinis and eating as many as 51 bananas a day.

While many raw diet gurus come off as aging hippies and write in the of a Dr. Bronner's bottle, Freelee presents herself as your typical modern lifestyle vlogger. Her Twitter bio reads, "Bananabitches [sic] Unite," and she posts photos in Kendall Jenner-esque lingerie reminiscent of fitness models. She's courted controversy for posting a video asking whether people who know about the impact of the meat and dairy industry should be allowed to live if they continue to consume animal products. "You should be forced to be vegan. The situation the planet is in, we cannot wait for you to get your shit together," she muses, adding, "Do I want to kill people? No, I don't want to kill people."

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Johnsen and his brother take a gentler approach on their channel, documenting his earthy lifestyle and preferring to explain the various developmental stages of the coconut and how to make a breakfast out of peaches and nectarines. "We get a lot of positive feedback and it's very encouraging," he says of his 36,771 followers. "People tell us about how our videos have inspired them to seek health and eat more fruit!"

Critics claim fruitarianism can act as a guise for orthorexia, an eating disorder focused on excessive healthy eating. (The National Eating Disorder Association recognizes the illness, but DSM-5, the diagnostic manual for mental disorders, does not.) "When a person is limiting their diet to one or two food groups, and becomes paranoid to eat certain foods, that can lead to eating disorders," DeFazio says. "If a diet harms your health, it is not a good thing."

Johnsen knows doctors have critiqued his diet. Like many internet celebrities, he brushes them off as haters. "We get plenty of hate and negative feedback, but that's fine," he says. "There are a lot of frustrated and angry individuals out there, all of which are likely suffering a serious lack of fruit and sunshine in their life!"