Sweet, brightly colored citrus fruits bring a burst of sunshine into winter days. But citrus fruits are not only flavorful and pretty — they’re also good for you.
This class of fruits includes lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit, as well as many more hybrids and varieties.
They have a bunch of health benefits, from boosting immunity to fighting cancer.
Read on to find out 7 reasons to eat citrus fruits.
What are citrus fruits?
Citrus fruits grow on flowering trees and shrubs. They are characterized by a leathery rind and white pith that encases juicy segments.
They’re native to Australia, New Guinea, New Caledonia and possibly Southeast Asia (1).
Nowadays, they are cultivated in tropical and subtropical climates all over the world. Major production hubs include Spain, Brazil, China, the US, Mexico and India (1).
Interestingly, nearly a third of all citrus fruits are used to make juice (1).
You can find all kinds of citrus fruits year round. The peak season for oranges and grapefruits in the Northern Hemisphere is between mid-December and April.
Here are some popular varieties of citrus fruits:
- Sweet oranges: Valencia, navel, blood orange, cara cara
- Mandarins: Satsuma, clementine, tangor, tangelo
- Limes: Persian, key lime, kaffir
- Grapefruit: White, ruby red, oroblanco
- Lemons: Eureka, Meyer
- Other kinds: Citron, sudachi, yuzu, pomelos
Read on for 7 reasons to add these fruits to your diet.
1. They’re rich in vitamins and plant compounds
Citrus fruits are an excellent source of vitamin C, a nutrient that strengthens the immune system and keeps your skin smooth and elastic (2, 3, 4, 5).
In fact, just one medium orange has all the vitamin C you need in a day (6).
Citrus fruits also have good amounts of other vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function properly, including B vitamins, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and copper (7).
Additionally, they are rich in plant compounds that have various health benefits, including anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
These compounds include over 60 varieties of flavonoids, carotenoids and essential oils, and they are responsible for many of citrus fruit’s health benefits (7, 8).
Summary: Citrus fruits are very nutritious, offering a host of vitamins, minerals and plant compounds that help keep you healthy.
2. They’re a good source of fiber
Citrus fruits are a good source of fiber. Just one cup of orange segments contains four grams of fiber (6).
To put that in perspective, it’s recommended that you consume 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you eat. It’s estimated that only 4% of men and 13% of women in the US get that amount (9).
Fiber has several health benefits, including improving digestive health and aiding weight loss.
Oranges are particularly high in soluble fiber, the kind of fiber that helps lower cholesterol levels (10).
Compared to other fruits and vegetables, citrus fruits are unique in that they have a higher ratio of soluble to insoluble fiber (11).
Summary: Citrus fruits are good sources of soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and aids digestion.
3. Citrus fruits are low in calories
If you’re watching your calorie intake, citrus fruits are a good choice.
They’re low in calories, yet their water and fiber contents help fill you up.
- 1 small clementine: 35
- 1 medium orange: 62
- 1/2 pink grapefruit: 52
- 1/2 white grapefruit: 39
- Juice from 1 lemon: 12
What’s more, a 2015 study that looked at people’s eating habits and weight over 24 years found that eating citrus fruits was linked to weight loss (16).
Summary: Citrus fruits are low in calories, making them a smart choice for people seeking to lose or maintain their weight.
4. They may reduce your risk of kidney stones
Kidney stones are painful mineral crystals.
They can form when your urine is very concentrated or when you have higher-than-normal amounts of stone-forming minerals in your urine.
One type of kidney stone is caused by low levels of citrate in urine.
Many fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, can raise the levels of citrate in your urine, lowering the risk of kidney stones (17).
Drinking citrus juices and eating these fruits can offer a natural alternative to potassium citrate supplements.
According to data on American eating habits over the last 40 years, kidney stones are more common in people who eat fewer citrus fruits (18).
Summary: Eating citrus fruits may help lower the risk of kidney stones in some people by raising citrate levels in urine.
5. They may help fight or protect against cancer
Many studies have linked citrus fruits to a reduced risk of certain cancers (1).
In one study, people who ate one grapefruit or drank one serving of grapefruit juice daily had a lower risk of lung cancer (19).
Other studies have suggested that citrus fruits may also protect against esophageal, stomach, breast and pancreatic cancers (20, 21, 22, 23).
These fruits contain a host of plant compounds, including flavonoids, that may help protect against cancer (8).
Some of these flavonoids act as antioxidants and may block the expression of certain genes that are responsible for some degenerative diseases, including cancer (8).
Citrus fruits may also help fight cancer by suppressing cancers, blocking the formation of new cancers and making carcinogens inactive (8).
Summary: Citrus fruits have been widely studied for their protective effects on a variety of cancer types.
6. They contain nutrients that boost heart health
Eating citrus fruits could be good for your heart.
In fact, a Japanese study found that people who ate higher amounts of these fruits had lower rates of heart disease and stroke (24).
Furthermore, a 2017 review suggests that grapefruits are linked to a decrease in systolic blood pressure (25).
Several compounds in citrus fruits can improve markers of heart health.
For example, their soluble fiber and flavonoids may improve cholesterol levels by raising “good” HDL cholesterol and lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (7).
And many of the flavonoids in citrus fruits, including one called naringin, are strong antioxidants that benefit the heart in several ways (26).
Summary: Many compounds in citrus fruits can benefit heart health by improving cholesterol levels and lowering blood pressure.
7. They may protect your brain
The flavonoids in citrus fruits may help ward off neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which result from the breakdown of cells in the nervous system.
In part, these diseases are caused by inflammation.
Flavonoids found in citrus fruits have anti-inflammatory capabilities that are thought to help protect against the chain of events that causes the nervous system to deteriorate (27, 28).
Specific types of flavonoids, including hesperidin and apigenin, have been shown to protect brain cells and improve brain function in mice and test-tube studies (27).
Several studies in older adults have also shown that citrus juices may boost brain function (29, 30, 31).
Summary: Citrus fruits and juices may help boost brain function and protect the brain from neurodegenerative disorders.
The downside of citrus fruits
While the overall picture of citrus is pretty rosy, there are a few potential downsides.
High amounts could cause cavities
Eating lots of citrus fruits or juices could increase the risk of cavities. That’s because the acid in citrus fruits erodes tooth enamel (32, 33).
This is a particular risk if you sip on lemon water all day long, bathing your teeth in acid.
Interestingly, certain compounds in citrus peels may combat the bacteria that cause dental cavities, although more research is needed to see how that information could be used (34).
Fruit juice isn’t as healthy as whole fruit
While orange and grapefruit juices contain lots of vitamin C and other nutrients often found in whole citrus fruits, they’re not quite as healthy.
That’s because a serving of juice delivers much more sugar and way less fiber than a serving of whole fruit (6, 35).
There are a couple reasons why that’s a problem.
First, more sugar per serving translates to more calories. Drinking fruit juice and other high-calorie beverages can cause you to gain weight (36).
Second, when your body takes in large amounts of fructose (the type of sugar in fruit juice), it is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream and delivered to your liver (37).
If your liver gets more fructose than it can handle, it turns some of the extra fructose into fat. Over time, those fat deposits can cause fatty liver disease (38).
Getting fructose from whole fruit is not a problem, given that you’re getting a smaller amount at a time. Plus, the fiber found in fruit buffers the fructose, causing it to be absorbed more slowly into your bloodstream.
Grapefruit can interact with certain medications
Eating grapefruit or drinking grapefruit juice can be a problem if you take certain medications.
There’s an enzyme in your gut that reduces the absorption of certain medications. Furanocoumarin, a chemical in grapefruit, binds to this enzyme and keeps it from working properly.
As a result, your body absorbs more medication than it’s supposed to (39).
Furanocoumarin is also found in tangelos and Seville oranges (the kind used for marmalade).
There are several prescription and over-the-counter drugs that are affected by grapefruit, including (40):
- Some statins, for high cholesterol, including Lipitor and Zocor
- Some calcium channel blockers, for high blood pressure, including Plendil and Procardia
- Cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant drug
- Some Benzodiazepines, including Valium, Halcion and Versed
- Other medications, including Allegra, Zoloft and Buspar
Summary: While citrus fruits are generally healthy, they can have some drawbacks. Their acid can erode tooth enamel and grapefruit can interact with some medications.
The bottom line
There are many reasons to eat citrus fruits.
They’re nutritious and contain plant compounds that can protect against a variety of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, brain dysfunction and kidney stones.
But aim to consume whole fruits, rather than a lot of fruit juice, as its high sugar content can lead to problems.
Overall, citrus fruits are healthy, low in calories and convenient to eat. Most people could benefit from adding more citrus to their diet.