Recent research has suggested that we should be eating as many as ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Yet only last November, Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, was claiming that GPs should sometimes aim lower with their patients, starting at just two portions a day. Standing in the middle, Public Health England says that five-a-day is both affordable and achievable. So just how many portions should we be eating, and what exactly is a portion anyway?
How many portions should I eat?
The simple answer is, the more portions of fruit and veg you can eat, the better. Dr Stokes-Lampard was making the point that for individuals and families who currently consume little or no fruit and veg, suggesting they aim for five portions a day is like suggesting a couch potato takes up marathon running.
The good news is that even small changes to your diet can make a big difference. Introducing just two and a half portions a day will significantly reduce your risk of serious diseases:
- Reduced cancer risk by 4%
- Reduced cardiovascular disease by 13%
- Reduced heart disease by 16%
- Reduced stroke by 18%
Two and a half portions a day will also reduce your overall risk of premature death by 15%. Not bad for an apple and just a few veggies with your main meal.
The more the merrier
Naturally, the health benefits increase the more fruit and veg you eat. A recent study by Imperial College, London, combined data from 95 different studies, covering 2million people, and found that ten portions a day reduced the risk of serious diseases even further:
- Reduced cancer risk by 13%
- Reduced cardiovascular disease by 28%
- Reduced heart disease by 24%
- Reduced stroke by 33%
The study also showed that ten-a-day reduced your overall risk of premature death by 31%. The team estimated that if everyone ate ten-a-day worldwide, 7.8million premature deaths a year could be prevented.
What exactly is a portion?
A portion is quite a vague concept, so here is a quick guide:
- A portion is classified as 80g, which is roughly a serving spoon full of veg or a single piece of fruit
- Ideally, you need to have variety. Five apples does not count as five portions
- It doesn’t have to be fresh; frozen fruit and veg have plenty of nutrients
- It can be raw or cooked, the study found little difference
- Beans and pulses count as a portion (though only one even if you have more than 80g)
- Potatoes don’t count, but sweet potatoes do
Why are fruit and vegetables so healthy?
Dr Dagfinn Aune, lead author of the research, thinks there are many factors involved, some of which we do not yet fully understand. “Fruit and vegetables have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and to boost the health of our blood vessels and immune system,” she says. “The complex network of nutrients they hold also contain many antioxidants, which may reduce the DNA damage associated with cancer risk.”
Different fruits and vegetables were found to benefit different health risks, for example, apples, pears, leafy veg and cruciferous veg helped reduce cardiovascular risks, while coloured vegetables, such as peppers and carrots, were particularly effective against cancer.
How can you make the change?
ARCH therapists often come across clients who have a very poor diet when it comes to eating fruit and vegetables, and this does not help their digestion, leading to constipation and other issues. It is estimated that fewer than one in three people in the UK currently manage five-a-day.
If you have a low intake of fruit and veg, then you need to introduce changes gradually, so that you can adapt to your new shopping habits and meal plans, and your body can adapt to the new input. However, as the statistics above show, the sooner you start to make those changes, the better for your health and wellbeing.
You can find easy wins by swapping your snacks, changing from crisps or chocolate to an apple or a pear. You should also try to include at least one vegetable with every meal, even if it’s just peas with your fish and chips, and if a meal out is served with a side salad, don’t just leave it on the plate, tuck in.
As you progress, try to balance your intake of fruit and vegetables, and vary the types you eat. As discussed above, the different varieties have different benefits, so you should try to ‘eat the rainbow’.
Ten a day may seem a long way off right now, but if you keep making gradual changes, and keep focused on your goal, you’ll be surprised how much easier it will become. And remember, if you need inspiration just look back at the figures above – it’s no exaggeration to say that eating more fruit and veg could actually save your life.