5, 7 or 10 a day? What should we be aiming for? Nutrition expert, dietitian Sue Baic gives us the lowdown on the real benefits to increasing your intake and practical steps on how to do it.
While the UK message has always been to ‘aim for 5 a day’, the results of a Health Survey for England last year, showed that 7 daily portions of fruit and vegetables gave the best chance of helping prevent heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and some types of cancer. That said, even 5-a-day reduces the risk of heart disease or cancer by almost 30% compared to those eating none.
As a nation, striving to increase our fruit and veg intake is a great aim when it comes to healthy eating, as currently the UK average intakes are only around 3 portions per day with only about a third of people even meeting the 5-a-day. So, our message is simple: don’t get hung-up on hitting a magic number of portions, if you’re regularly having 3 portions a day, aim for 5; or if you’re already getting your 5-a-day, perhaps the new 7-a-day recommendation is achievable. Use the easy-to-follow portion guidance table below to help you tot up how much you are currently getting and then simply up the ante!
What is a portion?
A portion is roughly the amount that would fit into the palm of your hand. For example one portion is any of the following:
- A piece of whole fruit e.g. a banana, orange, pear, nectarine, peach or apple or a similar sized fruit
- A large slice of fruit such as melon, pineapple or papaya
- Two smaller fruits such as satsumas, kiwi fruits or plums
- A handful of grapes, cherries or berries
- 1 heaped tablespoon of dried fruit such as raisins or apricots
- 3 heaped tablespoons of fruit salad, canned fruit in juice or stewed fruit
- Half a large grapefruit, mango or avocado
- 3 heaped tablespoons of vegetables (raw, cooked, frozen or canned)
- 3 heaped tablespoons of beans and pulses, such as baked beans or kidney, haricot, butter or cannelloni beans, lentils or chick peas
- A small cereal bowl of salad
You can see from the list that portions can include fresh, frozen, dried and canned (where the best choices are those in natural juice or water, with no added sugar or salt).
A glass (150ml) of unsweetened 100% fruit or vegetable juice also counts but as a maximum of one portion a day, however much you drink. That’s mainly because juice contains less fibre than other fruits and vegetables. However, smoothies which may count as up to two portions per day if they contain at least 2 different portions of fruit and vegetables.
Beans and pulses only count as one portion a day, no matter how many you eat. That’s because they contain slightly fewer of the protective phytonutrients than other fruits and vegetables.
To get the most benefit, your five portions should be different types of fruit and vegetables. This is because fruits and vegetables all contain different combinations of nutrients and protective phytonutrients, which are often the colour – hence the phrase ‘eat a rainbow diet’.
The research highlighted that people find it easier to increase consumption of fruit rather than vegetables but found that vegetables seemed more protective than fruit. A sensible message to take from this may be that at least half (and preferably more) of your daily portions should be raw or cooked vegetables, or salad. Interestingly, the Australian government have implemented a ’5:2 campaign’ to promote a 5:2 ratio of vegetable to fruit portions in their own recommendations, which may be something to consider when upping your intake.
Rather unexpectedly this new study found less of a benefit in those eating frozen or canned fruit and vegetables. However expert reviewers looking at the results are generally in agreement that this may be an unreliable finding associated more with the overall poorer diets and higher health risks in those eating these sources of fruit and veg, rather than a problem with frozen/canned varieties themselves. At Vavista Life, we are huge advocates of fresh, real foods but if you find these varieties more useful then do add them to your diet, just ensure any canned varieties of fruit are in water not syrup and vegetables do not contain added salt.
Putting increased fruit and vegetable intakes into practice can be difficult. It may be worth identifying whether there are any personal obstacles you face to see if there is a solution which works for you:
If cost is a barrier…
- Try shopping for fruit and vegetables at local markets or at the green grocers.
- A home delivery fruit and vegetable box scheme is good value and convenient.
- Choose fruit and vegetables in season.
- Avoid pre-washed or pre-chopped versions which are more pricey.
- Join a local food co-op where produce is bought cheaply in bulk and sold on at low cost to members.
- Try supermarket basics ranges, dried beans and frozen or canned vegetables.
If it’s lack of habit…
- Try to eat at least one or two portions with each meal. At least half your plate should be made up of fruit and vegetables. For example include some juice or dried or fresh sliced fruit on your cereal or an extra portion of vegetables or side salad with a cooked meal.
- Add plenty of vegetables such as tinned tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and pulses to casseroles, stir fry, pasta sauces and soups. Fruit and vegetables in cooked dishes all count.
If it’s lack of time …
- Pick fruit or vegetables as a first choice for a snack. A piece of fruit is cheaper than a chocolate bar or a bag of crisps and will have less than half the calories.
- Choose convenient canned or frozen varieties or pay a bit extra for pre-prepared versions e.g. bagged salad/ chopped stir-fry veggies.
Finally, in the UK we waste on average 19% of food and drink we buy and this costs the average household £9 per week or £470 per year. Fruit and vegetables are one of the most commonly wasted foods.
If you find you are binning a lot try these tips:
- Buy some fruit ripe and some to ripen later.
- Buy loose packed in just the amounts you need.
- Follow storage guidance and keep fruit and vegetables in their packaging until ready to use them. Most (except onions, bananas and pineapples) keep better in the fridge.
- Use leftovers creatively and safely e.g. leftover vegetables for soup or in an omelette. Look out for recipe suggestions. Use up any wrinkled or soft fruit in smoothies.
Oyebode O et al (2014) Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England data. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health March 31st http://jech.bmj.com/content/early/2014/03/03/jech-2013-203500.short?g=w_jech_ahead_tab
Bates B, et al (2011). National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Headline results from years 1 and 2 ( combined) of the Rolling Programme (2008/2009- 2009/10). Department of Health and Food Standards Agency: London.
Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK. WRAP, 2012
(Accessed April 2014).
Love Food Hate Waste http://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/ (Accessed April 2014).