Eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day is healthier than the minimum five currently recommended and would prolong lives. This is the finding of a new study of 65,226 men and women that indicated that the more fruit and vegetables people ate, the less likely they were to die – at any given age – by cutting the risk of dying from cancer and heart disease.
Researchers from University College London used the Health Survey for England, which collects data from people in England each year through questionnaires and nurse visits, to look at diet and lifestyle. They analysed data between 2001 and 2008, which provided a snapshot rather than people’s continuing dietary habits.
By looking at general mortality as well as deaths from cancer, heart disease and stroke, they found that the risk of premature death from any cause decreased as fruit and veg consumption increased. Risk of death by any cause over the course of the study was reduced by 42% for seven or more (up to around 10 portions a day). Fresh vegetables had the strongest protective effect, followed by salad and then fruit. Fruit juice has no benefit, while canned fruit seems to increase the risk of death. This may be because of the sugary syrup the fruit is stored in.
Lead researcher, Dr Oyinlola Oyebode, emphasised that the more vegetables and fruit you eat the better. She said the size of the effect was “staggering”, but added that eating a few portions a day was still better than nothing. Fruit and vegetables could have a protective effect against disease as they contain antioxidants, which repair damage to cells, she said. Dr Oyebode added that both fruit and vegetables contained micronutrients and fibre, both of which are good for health.
5-a-day vs. 7-a-day+
The research findings have attracted a great deal of publicity but no changes, as yet, in Government policy. Public Health England said that they are staying with the ‘5-a-day’ message for now as it is simple to understand and because two thirds of people were not eating five or more portions a day. Other health professionals have pointed to the fact that those who eat lots of fruit and veg are the better-off, educated and more health conscious. This could account for the reduction in risk. Health charities admitted that there would be a real problem promoting a ‘7-a-day+’ message and that it would require subsidies for fresh vegetables and fruit to attempt to reduce the inequalities.
Dr Michael Mosley, wrote an article for the BBC News Magazine, with suggestions on how to reach your seven portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
- Aim to eat at least four portions of vegetables a day and around three portions of fruit.
- Eat them, not drink them. The study found no real benefit from drinking fruit juice.
- Consider starting the day with an omelette with spinach. Spinach is rich in folate and betadine – vitamins that help regulate homocysteine (high levels of which are associated with heart disease).
- Add strawberries or blueberries to your cereal, or eat an orange.
- For lunch and evening meal you need to eat vegetables, with fruit as a dessert.
- Eat them raw or lightly steamed rather than boiled to death.
It is recommended that you add as much colour as possible to your diet. The different colours of different plants represent some of the thousands of different bioactive compounds, known as phytochemicals, which keep plants alive and healthy
Leafy greens include spinach, chard, lettuce and kale. They are a good source of minerals like magnesium, manganese and potassium. Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and other members of the brassicas family contain sulphur and organo-sulphur compounds. Sulphur is essential for the production of glutathione, an important antioxidant, as well as amino acids like methionine and taurine.
Orange and Yellow
Fruit and vegetables with yellow or orange in them are rich in carotenoids. Foods rich in carotenoids include carrots. Carotenoids in carrots can be converted to retinol, an active form of vitamin A which is important for healthy eyesight, bone growth and regulating our immune system. Carotenoids are also found in melons, tomatoes, peppers and squash.
Another class of carotenoids that produces the colour red are called the lycopenes. Red tomatoes contain lots of lycopene. Cooking tomatoes actually boosts the levels of lycopene. The reason is that heat helps break down the plant’s thick cell walls, making the nutrient more available. Heat can destroy Vitamin C in fruit and veg so it is a trade-off.
Blue and purple
Blue and purple foods get their colouring from a group of flavonoids called anthocyanins. You’ll find these flavonoids in blackberries, blueberries, purple carrots and red cabbage.
Garlic, white onions, shallots and leeks are rich in alliums and allyl sulphur compounds.
The NHS advises a fruit and vegetable portion to weigh about 80g.
- One fresh apple, banana or peach
- Half an avocado
- Two handfuls of blueberries
- Seven fresh strawberries
- One corn on the cob
- One medium tomato, or seven cherry tomatoes
- Three tablespoons of peas
- Two spears of broccoli
- Half a pepper
- Two-inch piece of cucumber