Think you're doing well if you eat five pieces of fruit and vegetables every day? Think again.
Is getting your five-a-day a daily uphill battle? Do you make do with a bottled smoothie (one or two portions) in the morning and then ask for lettuce and tomato (less than one portion) on your burger?
If you’re struggling to work recommended* five portions of fruit and vegetables a day into your diet, then I have some bad news for you – five is not nearly enough.
In Japan, they eat 17-a-day
Elsewhere in the world, governments advise packing much more fresh produce onto your plates. In Denmark it’s six, in Australia seven, Spain goes with eight, Greece nine, Canada “up to 10” and Japan sets the bar with a gut-bloating 17.
8-a-day fights cancer and heart disease
The World Cancer Research Fund has long advocated between five- and 10-a-day. The UK Institute for Optimum Nutrition recently found that the healthiest people eat eight-a-day. And in January, the European Heart Journal found that people eating eight portions of fruit and veg a day benefit from a 22% lower risk of dying from heart disease.
So why have we been fobbed off with a measly five-a-day all these years? Does our government not love us as much as other governments love their people? Were they taking into account the bigger portions greedy Brits tuck into, and concluding that where the Japanese might call a few edamame beans a portion, we’d be putting away a whole can of mushy peas?
Or did they go with five because our diets are so notoriously awful it was assumed we wouldn’t cope with more? Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, says that he has been recommending nine portions a day for a long time, but that the government were not prepared to give such demanding nutritional advice to the public.
“It was a political fudge,” he says. “There was very little evidence basis for it [five-a-day]. They just chose a figure that was aspirational but not so high as to be perceived as impossible to reach.”
So yes: the government didn’t think we could cope with the truth about how much fruit and veg we needed to eat, so they downsized it.
We still don’t eat five-a-day
This is a typical political sidestep. But I’m not convinced it was a dumb one. As it turns out, we’re not doing so well on the five-a-day, so who knows how we would react to a higher number. The Department of Health released a White Paper last year showing that only three in 10 of us consumed five-a-day.
If the message was changed, would those people consuming two or three portions a day then start eating five? Much more likely is that people would become even more confused. The “five-a-day” mantra has been so drilled into us over the past 15 years that it does not require “…of fruit and veg” tacked onto the end. We all understand it does not mean five Mars Bars or vodkas a day.
It is a consistent message that has made some impact. Of far more concern is the government’s almost complete reliance on shoving a bit of fruit and veg into our diets to maintain good health, and healthy weights. Upping the figure will cause panic, but it would be far more effective to broaden the advice doled out to a framework that might really change the way we eat.
Too much sugar
If you’re one of those who relies on smoothies and salad garnishes to get your vitamins, I’m afraid to say that adding in a bit of crunch here and a little pulp there will not impact upon an otherwise unhealthy diet packed with saturated fats and refined carbohydrates which are high in sugar – particularly when both are consumed in large quantities.
Britain’s obesity epidemic is real. You can see it on the streets and in school playgrounds. This is, in part, due to the fact that we’ve been advised to count calories and reduce fat for decades. This has been the overriding health message, and for those who try to follow it, it means that they largely rely on carbohydrates, which are sugar. Refined or not, they rarely add anything useful to our bodies, apart from a little fast-burning energy.
Fruit can be bad
Eating fruit isn’t guilt-free either. It is packed with sugar (hence most people get their five-a-day fixes from sweet fruits), which the body converts straight into fat, because it has no other job for it.
Eating more fruit and vegetables will definitely, as the evidence shows, fend off heart disease. But there are other, and more urgent, problems with the nation’s diet. Problems that a few crushed strawberries cannot solve.
Enjoy a varied diet
We need to eat a varied diet, and avoid processed foods. It seems like the however-many-a-day-you-can-face issue is turning into an international competition. Eating well is not a test, or a race. It should be a way of life.
* by the World Health Organisation and the Government
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