Hidden amongst the controversy about what constitutes the perfect human diet, there is one thing that experts agree upon: fruit and vegetables are vital for human health. Consequently, every child (and adult) knows that you need to eat “5-a-day”. That means that we should eat five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, where one serving is a portion of approximately 80g.
Consuming this amount was thought to provide the body with all the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre we need. However, a recent study conducted at Imperial College London found that five servings of fruit and veg may be far from enough. The researchers estimate that up to 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide could be prevented each year if we doubled our intake.
The aim of the 2017 study was to find out how much fruit and vegetables humans need to eat to achieve maximum protection against disease and premature death. The results suggested that while five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is good, ten is even better. The scientists concluded that if we eat 800g of fruit and vegetables a day – that’s the equivalent of about ten portions – we would reduce our risk of heart disease by 24%, the risk of stroke by 33%, cardiovascular disease by up to 28%, the risk of cancer by 13% and the risk of death by a whole 31%.
Are all fruit and veg created equal?
The researchers evaluated different types of vegetables and fruits. The best scores were achieved by apples, pears and citrus fruit in the fruit segment, and green leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach or chicory, broccoli, cabbage (especially cauliflower) in the vegetable segment. In particular, green vegetables such as beans, orange and yellow vegetables such as carrots, sweet potato and peppers, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts have been found to contain cancer-fighting compounds. Cruciferous vegetables activate enzymes that can prevent cancer cells from forming.
In addition, fruits and vegetables, in general, have a positive effect on gut bacteria. Here, the scientists could not find a difference between cooked and raw fruit or vegetables. Fruit and veg contain soluble fibre, which helps soften the stool and keeps things moving. Insoluble fibre serves as food for the bacteria. In return, they extract more nutrients for us from this plant matter that we cannot digest, providing, for example, extra B vitamins and short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). Those SCFA serve as fuel for the cells of our gut lining. Those are cells that you’ll really want to keep happy, as they provide a vital barrier between the outside world (in this case, the cavity of the gut) and our bloodstream.
Different bacteria prefer different foods. While there is much we do not yet know about our microbiota, we do know that variety is key. The healthiest people are those with the most diverse intestinal flora. So, when choosing your 10-a-day, it’s worth broadening your horizon to benefit from the entire spectrum of different fruit and vegetables available.
Moreover, the fibre from fruits and vegetables has been shown to mop up cholesterol in the gut. Fruit and veg reduce blood pressure and increase the health of our blood vessels and the immune system. This may be due to the complex network of nutrients they contain. For example, the antioxidants that reduce DNA damage can lower cancer risk or reduce inflammation and the damage of cholesterol inside the blood vessels.
For years now, our professional body, the British Association for Nutritional Therapy and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT), has proposed to increase 5-a-day to 7-a-day, which does not seem quite as daunting as doubling the amount. The BANT recommendation also specifies that of those seven, no more than three should come from fruit, reducing to just one if you are trying to lose weight. The rationale behind this restriction is that fruit – except berries – is relatively high in sugar. Therefore, a high fruit intake increases blood glucose levels, thus triggering insulin secretion, which in turn interferes with weight loss. So, you may want to bear this in mind and keep the share of fruit servings low, whether you’re planning to go all the way and up your intake to 10-a-day or whether you’re starting slowly with 7-a-day.
It is important to note that certain food items that seem to fit the bill actually don’t. Potatoes and other vegetables high in starch, for example, do not count towards your 5-(or 7 or 10)-a-day. While pulses are high in fibre, only one serving a day counts towards the fruit and veg servings, and fruit juice also counts only once. That’s because these foods are also high in starch, interfering with our blood sugar balance.
How on earth does anyone manage?
In our experience, most people are struggling to even meet the 5-a-day recommendation. So, how can you ever get to 10-a-day? It won’t happen overnight – and in fact, that is not even desirable. If your body is not used to a diet that is high in fibre, you may at first experience digestive problems, such as bloating and flatulence. You can lessen the effect by increasing your intake slowly, allowing your body to adjust. Here are our three top tips for achieving 10-a-day:
Fruit and veg at every meal
If you plan to get ten servings of fruit and vegetables inside you by dinner time, you must use every opportunity, i.e. there has to be a contribution towards your 10-a-day at every meal. You’ll need to eat three portions per meal, leaving one – perhaps your daily piece of fruit – for a snack.
To get it all done, you must start at breakfast. Apples, pears, bananas and berries are popular breakfast choices, but you shouldn’t dismiss veg for breakfast either. Even the traditional cooked breakfast can cover three servings: mushrooms, (sugar-free) baked beans, and a grilled tomato, and Bob’s your uncle. But why stop there? Wilted spinach, sweet potato porridge, or a vegetable omelette could all contribute.
Replace or ‘dilute’ your starchy staples
For many of us, a meal is not complete without a starchy side, such as pasta, rice or potatoes. None of these count towards our 10-a-day, but that can easily be remedied by replacing such foods with cauliflower, broccoli or mushroom rice (i.e. those veg grated to the size of rice kernels), courgetti (spiralised courgettes), butternut squash lasagne sheets, sweet potato chips or carrot, swede or cauliflower mash. You’d not only reduce your starch intake – thus keeping your blood sugar stable – but also increase your intake of vegetables. If that’s too much to begin with, start with a 50:50 mix.
Once you start replacing starchy foods, you’ll soon find more and more opportunities to get more veg into your diet. You can use lettuce or cooked cabbage leaves to make wraps, replace burger buns with lettuce leaves, and even bake cakes and muffins that contain courgettes, carrots, or beetroot. You can snack on vegetables crudités, using dips made of mashed peppers and walnut, beetroot and feta cheese, spinach and ricotta. The possibilities are endless!
You can do this!
Be inspired by hunter-gatherers, who typically eat between 100 and 150 g of fibre per day. Considering that fruit and vegetables, on average, contain only about 5g of fibre per serving, that’s a lot of food! The new recommendation of 10-a-day, therefore, aims for about 50g fibre. Other foods – such as nuts, seeds and pulses – contribute some more, but at least we do not have to forage for them. With a bit of planning and a little creativity, we can achieve 10-a-day and give our health a boost!