Should you be eating 7 portions of fruit and vegetables a day? The news this morning is dominated by the new study published by University College London that concludes that 7+ portions of fruit and veg a day is most protective against all cause mortality. At the moment the government guidelines say we should be eating 5 portions a day.
The UCL Study
Let’s have a closer look at the study. Over 65,000 people in England aged 35+ were surveyed between 2001-2008. Eating at least seven daily portions was linked to a 42% lower risk of death from all causes, and was also associated with a lower risk of death from cancer and heart disease. A strength of this study is that participants were chosen randomly and so represented the general population; previous studies into fruit and vegetable consumption have focused on specific professions such as nurses or have recruited vegan and vegetarian populations; these populations may be more health conscious anyway and may not be representative of the general UK population. However, there are some limitations of this current study. The data was collected at one point in time by self reporting which can be unreliable and not take into account future or usual eating habits, and some of the data for BMI was missing. The study finds a strong association but not a causal link, as other aspects of the diet were not taken into account.
What does all this mean and how does it affect you?
Study strengths and limitations aside, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that eating more plant foods is good for you. Even though research may not be conclusive, there does seem to be a strong link with vegetable intake and risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
This study shows more benefit of eating higher amounts of vegetables than fruit. Although fruit has many beneficial vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, it is also higher in sugar and fructose which has been associated with health risks, so should be eaten in moderation. Fruit juices can contain up to 5 teaspoons of sugar, which would equate to our whole daily allowance, so are best avoided. Whole fruits contain fibre which can slow down the release of sugar into your blood and prevent spikes and dips in energy; you are better off consuming an orange than a glass of orange juice. Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips, carrots, swede and butternut squash are also higher in sugar and it is best to count these vegetables as your carbohydrate portion.
Vegetables and fruit are an important source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre and we should all be including plant foods in our diets for optimum health. Plant foods contain antioxidants which can help to fight free radicals which cause damage and oxidative stress in our bodies leading to ageing and disease.
5? 7? Just Remember Half a Plate!
Generally, rather than worrying about how many portions we should be eating, a good guide is to fill half your plate with non starchy vegetables.
Many of us see vegetables as an accompaniment to the main meal, adding a few florets of broccoli or a side salad, and lots of us stick to just a couple of regularly eaten varieties. Mediterranean countries make the most of their abundance of vegetables and design meals with vegetables as the main players. Although we don’t have the Mediterranean sunshine ripening mouth wateringly good plant foods in this country, we have no excuse as our supermarkets stock most varieties of vegetables, and organic box schemes can deliver local produce to our doors. No single fruit or vegetable provides all the nutrients you need to be healthy, so it is important to eat a wide variety and lots of different colours – eat a rainbow!
Having a meat free Monday can help you to start to realise the potential of plant foods and encourage you to be more adventurous. Plant foods contain protein, and meals can be planned with quinoa, pulses, beans, nuts or soy protein taking the place of meat or dairy.
What’s Stopping You?
The majority of adults in the survey knew they were meant to be eating 5 portions a day but reported that barriers to this included changing habits, lack of time and motivation, cost and eating what they were given.
Incorporating more plant foods doesn’t have to be more expensive, and soups and casseroles can be made with cheap seasonal produce. Time saving tips are to incorporate fruit and veg into smoothies, use ready prepared veg if in a rush, use a food processor to chop, and batch cook meals to freeze. Planning is key to success – plan your food shops smartly and schedule in time to prepare or cook veg when you have a free slot. It really is worth the small amount of extra effort to reap the health benefits.
Family Meal Ideas
If you’re convinced that incorporating more plant foods can help you and your family to be more healthy, but are stuck for ideas, here are a few family meal ideas that may get you started.
• Try more salads – pear and walnut, fennel and orange, avocado watercress and beetroot
• Include more veg in quick stir fries – try water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, beansprouts, pak choi, fresh root ginger, garlic, kale, peppers, edamame beans, lemongrass
• Quick smoothie ideas – mango and coconut, spinach pear and celery, avocado and cocoa
• Make a vegetarian cottage pie with red lentils, celery, carrot, onion and top with mashed sweet potato. Serve with a big helping of greens
• Try a chilli packed with vegetables such as peppers, onions, aubergine, mushrooms, carrots, tomatoes and serve with cauliflower ‘rice’ instead of white rice. Simply chop cauliflower in a food processor and steam for 5 minutes.
• Add dried porcini mushrooms with red wine, puy lentils and fresh thyme to a casserole and serve with buckwheat dumplings
• Add vegetables such as cauliflower, peppers, green beans or butternut squash to curries, sweetened with coconut milk.
• Quick home made soups can include pea and mint, red lentil and tomato, butternut squash
• Healthy takeaway – it’s just as quick to grab a ready made tomato soup and bag of watercress from the supermarket to serve with grated carrot and pumpkin seeds. Ditch the extra calories and trans fats from takeaways, you can still be healthy if you are short of time.
I hope I have inspired you to eat more plant foods. The authors of the UCL study suggest that education may not be enough to motivate the most socio economically disadvantaged in our society to eat more healthily, and that fiscal policies may be needed. Let’s all take responsibility for our own health. With a few sensible adjustments to our diets we can make a whole lot of difference to our health outcomes.