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How many portions of fruit and veg should I really be eating? 5-a-day or 7-a-day?

Posted on: 1st April 2014

Posted in: Healthy Eating, Topical Nutrition Issues

In the wake of today’s headlines saying we should all be eating a 7 a day to ‘keep death at bay’, how many portions should you really be having? We all know that eating fruit and vegetables is good for us – there’s no question about that. They contain a whole host of important nutrients, like vitamins, antioxidants and fibre. From keeping our immune system in tip top condition, improving our skin condition, to helping regulate our digestive system, no one doubts their benefits.

However – how much really is enough to get as many benefits as possible?

In the UK, the 5 a day message is very well known and has been around as standard Department of Health guidance since the late 1980s. The 5 a day message was borne out of clear emerging evidence about the protective role of fruits and vegetables in preventing cancer and heart disease in the 1970s. Interesting, some other countries recommend higher amounts, such as Australia, who have the 2 & 5 campaign (2 portions of fruit and 5 of veg). The UK decided to follow World Health Organisation advice and go for 5 a day because this was seen as a good balance between the benefits of fruit and veg vs achievable realistic intake. Although the 5 a day campaign has been successful in terms of people knowing about the campaign and having a greater awareness, National Diet and Nutrition Study surveys (published in 2012) show us that only 31% of 19-65 year olds are getting their 5 a day – so even the 5 a day message is not being taken up. This is probably due to a number of reasons, including the perception that fruit and veg is expensive, dislike of fruit / veg, and perceived lack of convenience.

What about today’s news story?

The new study in the media today claims that eating 7 portions of fruit and veg a day will help save lives by helping us to live longer. The study researchers found a ‘strong association’, not necessarily a ‘causal relationship’ as insinuated by the media. It’s worth considering confounding factors such as that the people eating the highest amounts of fruit and veg in the study were also less likely to be overweight or obese, were more physically active and less likely to smoke.

So do we need to review our current 5 a day recommendation as a result of this study?

No – I think we just need to get people to eat more fruit and veg – consider where you are now, and what you could do to increase your intake. I think the 5 a day message is still current, but for those of you who already eat 5 a day, then why not increase that to 6 or 7? The evidence suggests that vegetables may be more protective than fruit, so I would recommend going for a little more veg than fruit (providing you’re already getting your 5 a day – because if not, any intake is good!), e.g. 2 portions of fruit and 3 portions of veg / salad.

In Summary:

The message really is as simple as ‘just eat more’ (fruit and veg). We know that eating more fruit and vegetables is beneficial, but for a lot of people only eating 2 portions a day, hearing that they should be eating 7 portions probably seems completely unachievable. Think about how many portions you’re eating now (a portion is 80g or approx. a handful) and consider how you could improve this. If you’re already having 5 a day, include another portion. And contrary to popular perceptions, fruit and veg doesn’t need to be expensive. Discount supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi often have weekly offers on fruit and veg, or try your local greengrocers – especially near the end of the day when you’re likely to get some great bargains. Our local fruit & veg stall in Shirley always has punnets of strawberries / grapes reduced to 50p at the end of the day. Dried, tinned, frozen and fresh all counts. Dried fruit is great for kids’ lunchboxes, but beware giving it as a snack because it is not great for dental health. And don’t forget that beans, pulses and lentils (including baked beans) can also count towards one of your 5 a day.

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