By James Collier BSc (Hons) RNutr – Contributor in Nutrition
Everyone knows fruit and vegetables are good for you, but how many of you know why they’re so good? You’ve all probably heard the much publicised Government campaign ‘5 a Day!’ encouraging us to consume five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, but it’s not always obvious as to how these five should be made up, or indeed are five servings really enough?
Fruit and vegetables need to be consumed, along with a variety of other quality foods, to ensure you’re acquiring adequate amounts of all the vitamins and minerals (collectively known as ‘micronutrients’) necessary for optimal health. Different fruits and veg are higher in different micronutrients; for example, oranges are packed with vitamin C, carrots are high in vitamin A, leafy green veg contain iron, bananas provide potassium, and so on.
As well as micronutrients, fruit and veg are also major contributors to our intake of dietary fibre. Fibre is needed for a healthy digestive system, and soluble fibre, found in fruits and pulses (like beans and lentils) may also help control our blood cholesterol levels.
In addition there are some non-nutritional constituents of food, which may have healthy properties like helping to protect us from some diseases. Some of these are antioxidants which may help quash free-radicals involved in the process of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Consuming a range of fruit and vegetables will help ensure a good intake of these phyto-nutrients.
Fruit versus Vegetables
As the two food categories are almost always clumped together when giving nutritional recommendations, we need to look at the issue as to whether there is any preference of consuming fruit over vegetables or vice versa. The recommendations of Five a Day is for either fruit or veg or ideally for a mixture of both; indeed, as in all aspects of nutrition, variety is encouraged and we should be choosing from a range of different fruits and vegetables and spreading our intake of them throughout the day. However the Governments of some countries do recommend more vegetables in relation to fruit, due to the fact that there is less sugar and higher levels of some minerals. A notable number of people are not lovers of greens or salad, so I encourage these folk to have predominantly fruit, though I try to get them to have at least one vegetable serving a day; corn-on-the-cob is popular. If you’re not a fruit lover, then it’s fine to make your five servings up predominantly from vegetables.
Different fruit and vegetables are not equal, though, as some are higher in different types of fibre and different micronutrients than others. However no one knows which are best, and as each does have different qualities, we’re simply encouraged to eat a variety and plenty.
On the whole therefore, it doesn’t matter too much whether it’s fruit or veg consumed, but in the case of individuals trying to control their weight, I would ideally err on the side of suggesting more veg, and just two or three items of fruit per day, maximum. Not that fruit is bad, but it is notably more calorie dense than vegetables per ‘portion’, and this may be a crucial factor in the speed of weight loss if the individual consumes a large number of pieces of fruit each day.
What is a ‘portion’?
It can be confusing as to what is meant by a ‘portion’ so as a general guide, use the list below.
Strictly speaking, using the Department of Health criteria for labelling products as ‘5 a Day’, only those foods that contain no added sugar, fat or salt, can count.
- 1 apple, banana, pear, orange or other similar sized fruit
- 2 plums, satsumas, kiwi fruit or other similar sized fruit
- ½ a grapefruit or avocado
- 1 large slice of melon or fresh pineapple
- 3 heaped tablespoons of vegetables, beans or pulses
- 3 heaped tablespoons of fruit salad or stewed fruit
- 1 heaped tablespoon of raisins or sultanas
- 3 dried apricots
- 1 cupful of grapes, cherries or berries
- 1 dessert bowl of salad
- 1 small glass (150ml) of pure fruit juice or smoothie
- Although fruit juices count as a serving, they can only contribute to a maximum of one serving per day. This is because although they are great to include as part of a healthy diet, as they are packed with vitamins and minerals, they are low in fibre, and soluble fibre is one of the main health benefits of fruit.
- The same applies for shop purchased fruit smoothies, as these are often much lower in fibre, and may contain some added sugar. You may have seen that some of these are marketed to provide you with the full ‘Five a Day’, but in reality can only contribute to a maximum of one serving, so beware!
- However home made smoothies where you use the entire edible portion of a fruit are a great and enjoyable way to consume your fruit!
- Many ‘experts’ advise against dried fruit, saying that it’s inferior and just ‘simple sugar’. Contrary to what they say, dried fruit is a great inclusion and is a quick, tasty and convenient snack; it’s ideal to include!
- Pulses, including all beans and lentils, even baked beans, can count, but only as a maximum of one portion per day, no matter how many you eat.
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes, although great, healthy, carbohydrate-providing foods, would not be included in your daily fruit and veg count.
- Frozen veg is often better that so-called ‘fresh’ veg which you buy at supermarkets. This because it’s frozen at source and freezing retains all the micronutrients, whereas what you buy ‘fresh’ has often been stored for months, and a lot of the vitamins and minerals have been lost.
- Manufactured soups and sauces and indeed any composite product, at this point in time, the Department of Health’s official line is they don’t count, as they have yet to develop composite criteria for labelling fruit and vegetables. So in practice I wouldn’t count a soup or sauce unless it’s homemade, as the processing in manufactured items will have drastically reduced the micronutrient content, and there’s likely to be very little fibre. A thick homemade soup made from puréed veg, on the other hand, eaten fresh, will still retain a great deal of nutrients, and will be a great contribution to your 5 a Day.
Why Five a Day?
The Department of Health recommended ‘5 a Day’ after numerous studies demonstrated the benefits of including good amounts of fruit and veg each day, and after surveys which indicated that intakes are declining. They were originally going to call it the ‘5-8 a Day’ campaign but this didn’t roll off the tongue and five is a practically much more achievable figure than eight (see plan below); eight servings would just be too intimidating for the not-so-health-conscious amongst us. Many other European Governments recommend an absolute minimum of five, and some go as far as suggesting eleven, from evidence based on protection against heart disease and some cancers.
For optimal health, therefore, five portions a day is not enough, especially if you partake in regular hard exercise. The ideal practical amount seems to be seven or eight portions of fruit or vegetables, made up from a variety of different choices spread through the day. The following plan provides some examples of practical ways for those who take part in sport and exercise frequently to consume an adequate amount of fruit and veg per day. You’ll see the total is a whopping ten portions, so this gives plenty of ideas to consume seven or eight.
What are the Benefits of eating Fruit and Veg?
Other than the obvious, in that vitamins and minerals are essential for good health and indeed life, and fibre for a healthy digestive system, including plenty of fruit and veg in our diets every day has been shown to directly protect us from some diseases. The issue of fruit and veg consumption in relation to reduction of risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers has been researched extensively for years, and there is excellent evidence from population studies that people with higher intakes are less likely to either get ill from these conditions or if symptoms are less severe 2,3,4.
Do we need Vitamin and Mineral Supplements?
Many people advocate micronutrient supplements because, in their words ‘we don’t get enough vitamins and minerals from foods’ or ‘just to be safe’. If you’re eating a well balanced diet with a variety of different foods including adequate amounts of fruit and veg, then there should be no need for additional micronutrient supplements (unless advised by your doctor). Obviously fruit and veg doesn’t supply all micronutrients, and you’ll need to ensure you have good intakes of other foods and take particular care with calcium, iron, vitamin B12 and sodium.
- Djousse et al, Am J Clin Nutr (2004) 79: 213-17
- He et al, Lancet (2006) 367: 320-26
- Riboll & Norat, Am J Clin Nutr (2006) 78(suppl): 559-69