Ailsa Column #2
Ailsa Brogan-Hewitt

Is 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day enough?

There are lots of recommendations when it comes to how many portions of fruit and vegetables we should eat each day. Some say three, some suggest five, others seven and more recently 10 was recommended. So which is the right one and where do these numbers come from?

Well there is no denying that eating fruit and vegetables is good for us and are vital elements of a healthy, balanced diet. They’re an important source of energy which contain important vitamins and minerals, not to mention fibre. They’re also the only source of phytonutrients (natural chemicals found in plants) that are incredibly beneficial to health.

Also studies that observe behaviour across large groups of people have shown that high intakes of fruit and vegetables are associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases; particularly, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Not only that, but insufficient intake of fruit and vegetables is estimated to cause around 14% of gastrointestinal cancer deaths, about 11% of ischaemic heart disease deaths and about 9% of stroke deaths globally…pretty eye opening isn’t it! So we can’t argue that there is overwhelming research to suggest we need to eat fruit and vegetables in order to keep us healthy, but how much should we be aiming to eat each day?

There has been a lot of headlines recently about how 10 a day is more beneficial than current recommendation of five, and the evidence does seem to be strong. The study was carried out by researchers from various academic and medical institutions in Norway, Imperial College London and Leeds University in the UK, Harvard University and the Icahn School of Medicine in the US. This research supports the idea that the more fruit and veg you eat the better – at least, up to 10 portions (800g) a day. It also suggests the number of people who die early might be reduced if they were to eat more than the current recommended guideline daily amount.

As it stands the government recommends that we should try to eat 5 portions of fruit and veg, one portion is classed at 80g (of both fruit and veg). This is the equivalent of two broccoli spears or four heaped tablespoons of cooked kale, spinach, spring greens or green beans. When looking at fruit, one portion is about two or more small items of fruit, for example two plums, two satsumas, two kiwifruit, seven strawberries or 14 cherries. More info on your 5 a day can be found here.

So why hasn’t this recommendation changed if there is significant research to suggest we should eat more fruit and veg? The 5 a day campaign was designed to prevent diseases and lower the risk of micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiencies for the general population. Also research shows that most adults in the UK don’t manage to eat 5 a day, the majority actually only eat around one, so recommending more than this would seem unattainable for most. As Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, explained to the BBC: “Whilst consuming more than five portions of fruit and vegetables a day may be desirable… adding pressure to consume more fruit and vegetables creates an unrealistic expectation.” Victoria Taylor of the British Heart Foundation supports this and rightly points out: “There is no nutritional benefit in a guideline that is not followed.”

To sum up, we now know why the 5 a day recommendation was set and we also know that there is strong evidence that suggests eating more than five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, at least, up to 10 (800g) a day is seen as desirable and comes with additional health benefits. So what’s my advice? Eat a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and even more if you can!

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