Five a day: do we really need so many fruit and vegetables?

Jul 30, 2014

A new study says five a day is just right, but only three in ten Brits are eating enough fruit and vegetables


The message to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day has been drummed into Britons for years. But earlier this year experts upped the ante, suggesting in March that seven or more portions a day would lower the risk of premature death.

That, in turn, has been contradicted by more research published today, which insists that five a day is just right. So just how many portions should we eat and why? 

Why should I eat five a day?

A minimum of 400g (or five 80g portions) of fruit and vegetables a day is said to lower the risk of serious health problems, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. It is also a good source of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre, which helps prevent digestion problems. As most fresh fruit and vegetables are low in fat and calories, the five-a-day target can help you maintain a healthy weight and heart.

What counts towards my five a day?

Almost all fruit and vegetables count, whether they are fresh, cooked, frozen, tinned, dried or juiced. However, the NHS warns that products with added sugar, salt and fat should be eaten only occasionally and in small amounts. It also recommends a varied selection each day. Beans and pulses count as only one portion a day no matter how many you eat, as they contain fewer nutrients than other fruits and vegetables. Pure fruit juice also counts for only one a day as it contains less fibre. Potatoes, a British favourite, don't count at all.

Does anyone actually eat five a day?

According to the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey, only three in ten British adults aged between 19 and 64 meet the five-a-day target, with most only eating around four portions a day. Those aged 65 and over had a marginally better intake, with four in ten meeting the five-a-day recommendation.  Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, described the figures as "worrying".

What do other countries do?

Germany, France and Norway are among several countries to also recommend at least five a day. Australians are encouraged to eat "2&5", two portions of fruit and five portions of vegetables, while Canadians are told to eat between seven and ten.

So should we be eating more fruit and vegetables?

A study by University College London, published in March, suggested that seven a day cut the risk of dying by 42 per cent. But new research in the British Medical Journal has backed the five-a-day target. Experts analysed 16 studies in Asia, Europe and the US, involving 833,000 people, and found that for every portion of fruit and vegetables consumed, there was a five per cent lower risk of premature death. But after five portions a day, there was no further impact. This suggests that eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day cuts the risk of premature death by a quarter.

The lead researcher on the University College study, Dr Oyinlola Oyebode, acknowledged that today's study had more data and so may give a "more precise" answer. But she told the BBC: "Most people do not eat five portions of fruit and veg a day, so the message for the public is still to eat more fruit and veg."

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