Photo: Getty / Adél Békefi
For many of us, fresh cherries are a go-to summertime snack—and as luck would have it, this mouthwatering stone fruit is as healthy as it gets.
Besides being high in both vitamins A and C, cherries are loaded with anti-inflammatory nutrients called anthocyanins, which are what give them their vibrant dark red and burgundy-purple color, says Suzanne Dixon, RDN, registered dietitian and epidemiologist at Cambia Health Solutions in Portland, Oregon.
Cherries have such potent anti-inflammatory activity, they may help reduce the risk of several inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. "They've even been studied as a way to reduce pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis and muscular pain post-workout," says Dixon.
But after eating too many (which is easy to do since they're beyond delish), you may have also noticed another, less appealing talent that cherries possess: Their ability to slingshot through your digestive tract almost as soon as you've swallowed them.
What's behind the havoc that cherries wreak on your insides and how can you stop the madness? We went to the experts to find out:
Why do cherries make you poop?
Cherries contain fiber, a known constipation reliever. Depending on the type of cherry, they can contain anywhere from 1.5 to 3 grams of fiber per cup—both soluble and insoluble. "Soluble fiber helps the body digest foods more slowly and control blood sugar levels," says Texas-based registered dietitian Maggy Doherty, RD. Meanwhile, insoluble fiber helps to add bulk to your stool, which helps move waste through the body more efficiently. The result? Fewer intestinal traffic jams.
Related: Try These Healthy Cherry Recipes
However, it's probably not the fiber in cherries that's causing your digestive woes. For most people, cherries don't contain enough fiber to cause a noticeable increase in number-two trips when they eat just a serving or two. (One serving is 1/2 cup of cherries, or roughly 1 gram of fiber, so not that much.) "When people notice a laxative effect from cherries, they may be reacting to two other features of this fruit," says Dixon.
The first is the naturally occurring sugar alcohols that cherries contain. "Most people think of sugar alcohols as only being found in processed food, gum and candy," says Dixon. "But some fruits contain sugar alcohols too." So if you're sensitive to eats like low-calorie ice cream and dietetic candy, odds are you'll be quite sensitive to cherries too. "Even a single serving of cherries will make you poop—and really quickly," says Dixon.
Cherries are also a natural source of salicylates. You may recognize the word because it's uber-similar to salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. "Salicylic acid is one of many different salicylates," says Dixon. "Some people are sensitive to these substances and when they take aspirin or eat too many cherries they end up with major GI upset." (Cherries don't contain nearly as much as aspirin, but do contain enough to cause a reaction in people who are super-sensitive.)
How to enjoy cherries—without stomach problems
Not to sound all Captain Obvious, but the best way to enjoy cherries—without bolting to the bathroom afterward—is in moderation. "Most people, even those who are somewhat sensitive to the sugar alcohols and salicylates in cherries, can still enjoy them," says Dixon. The trick is to experiment to find your threshold of tolerance.
To start, stick to one serving (1/2 cup or about 7 cherries, depending on their size), see how your gut reacts, and go from there. Take the time to measure them out so you're not tempted to keep popping them in your mouth—otherwise, you run the risk of your insides retaliating.
Another handy strategy is to avoid combining cherries with other foods you know you don't tolerate well. "If you're sensitive to cherries, you may also be sensitive to other fruits with similar substances in them (especially sugar alcohols)," says Dixon, like watermelon, blackberries, nectarines, pears, apples and avocado. Knowing this, you definitely don't want to eat cherries as part of a big fruit salad with these other potentially problematic foods.
On the flip side, eat cherries with foods you know you do tolerate well. "Diluting the substances found in cherries can lessen their effect on the GI tract," says Dixon. Eating them with other foods, such as part of a typical meal—rather than on an empty stomach as a snack—can make them less likely to cause GI distress.
Use frozen black cherries in smoothies, add fresh cherries to Greek yogurt or toss dried cherries into your trail mix, suggests Doherty. "All of these methods help incorporate this healthy fruit into your diet without overdoing it," she says.
And if you're super sensitive to either sugar alcohols or salicylates, continuing to eat cherries may not be worth the Olympic-worthy sprints to the throne.