Healthy eating includes eating at least five portions - ideally 7-9 portions - of a variety of fruit or vegetables each day. Fruit and vegetables include fresh, frozen, tinned, or dried varieties, and fruit juice. On average, people who eat lots of fruit and vegetables tend to be healthier and live longer.
What are the health benefits of eating enough fruit and vegetables?
- You have a lower chance of developing cardiovascular diseases due to 'hardening of the arteries' (atheroma). For example, heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, or a stroke.
- You have a lower chance of developing some cancers, such as bowel and lung cancer.
- You have a lower chance of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes.
- Fruit and vegetables also:
- Contain lots of fibre which helps to keep your bowels healthy. Problems such as constipation and diverticular disease are less likely to develop.
- Contain plenty of vitamins and minerals, which are needed to keep you healthy.
- Are naturally low in fat.
- Are filling but are low in calories, so they are ideal to keep your weight under control.
How do fruit and vegetables prevent disease?
Fruit and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals which keep the body healthy. They also contain chemicals called antioxidants, such as beta carotene and vitamin C. These are thought to protect against damaging chemicals that get into the body. However, the exact way in which they prevent disease is not fully understood.
Fruit and vegetables also contain fibre. This can help to control cholesterol levels and keep blood sugar levels steady. Eating fruit and vegetables can help to replace other foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, which further helps to reduce our risk of these diet-related diseases.
Having a low intake of fruit and vegetables is estimated to cause about 19% of cancers of the digestive system, 31% of heart disease and 11% of stroke.
Why 'five a day'?
Health promotion campaigns often refer to 'five a day'. Why are we encouraged to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day? The World Health Organization collected evidence together in 1990. It was found that a minimum of 400 g (about five 80 g portions) were needed to:
- Allow us to meet our nutritional requirements.
- Protect us from diseases such as stroke, heart disease, some cancers, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
In fact, five portions of fruit and vegetables each day is the minimum. This number is also based on how many portions the nation is likely to be able to achieve. So, if it is set too high, the target would be unrealistic. Nevertheless, it appears that the more fruit and vegetables we eat, the greater our protection from diet-related diseases.
Currently only about a third of the UK adults meet the 'five-a-day' recommendation, and only about one in ten people aged 11-18 years.
Vegetables seem to be more beneficial to health than fruit. The Australian government's recommendation is for two plus five: two portions of fruit and five portions of vegetables each day. People in France are encouraged to eat ten portions of fruit and vegetables daily. In Japan the recommendation is for 13 portions of vegetables and four portions of fruit.
What is one portion of fruit or vegetables?
- One large fruit such as an apple, pear, banana, orange, or a large slice of melon.
- Two smaller fruits such as plums, kiwis, satsumas, clementines, etc.
- One cup of small fruits such as grapes, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, etc.
- Two large tablespoons of fruit salad, stewed fruit or canned fruit.
- One tablespoon of dried fruit.
- One glass of fresh fruit juice (150 ml).
- A normal portion of any vegetable (about two tablespoons).
- One dessert bowl of salad.
- Three heaped tablespoons of beans, pulses or lentils.
Note: a 150 ml glass of fruit juice counts as only one of your 'five a day', even if you have more than one glass. This is because during processing much of the fibre has been removed and the sugar is released from the plant cells, meaning there are higher levels of 'free sugars'. Some smoothies you can buy might count as two portions, depending on how they are made and how much fruit is included. To count as two portions, a smoothie must contain at least 150 ml of fruit juice and 80 g of pulped fruit or vegetables.
Beans and pulses also count as a maximum of one portion each day. This is because they do not contain as many nutrients as other fruit and vegetables.
How to increase fruit and vegetables in your diet
Fruit and vegetables add colour, flavour and texture to any dish. No one fruit or vegetable contains all the nutrients you need, so it is good to have a variety and include fruit and vegetables of all different colours. Different colours of fruits mean different combinations of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
- Try some different types which you have not tried before. The variety of tastes and textures may be surprising. Juiced, frozen, canned, and dried varieties all count, as well as fresh. Perhaps try one new fruit or vegetable each week.
- Try adding chopped bananas, apples, or dried fruits to breakfast cereals.
- Instead of a fruit yoghurt, have a piece of fruit with a dollop of natural yoghurt.
- Aim to include at least two different vegetables with most main meals.
- Add tomato purée and/or tinned chopped tomatoes as a pasta sauce or in casseroles and stews.
- Sometimes nutrients are lost or destroyed during cooking. Eat fruit and vegetables raw when possible and try to avoid over-cooking them.
- Try poaching, steaming or microwaving rather than boiling. These methods help to reduce the amounts of nutrients lost or destroyed. If you do boil vegetables, the water can be used in stocks, sauces or soups.
- Always offer fruit to accompany meals.
- How about cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, dried apricots, or other fruits as part of packed lunches? A banana sandwich is another idea for lunch.
- When making sandwiches, try to add in cucumber, tomato, lettuce or avocado to accompany sandwich fillings.
- Bulk out meals with vegetables, beans and pulses. For example, when making a Bolognese, add in chopped mushrooms, red peppers and some kidney beans. This also helps to make meals go further.
- Fruit is great for snacks. Encourage children to snack on fruit rather than eating sweets.
What doesn't count?
Sometimes, we might think something counts as a portion of fruit and vegetables, but we can be mistaken. Here are some common misunderstandings:
- Potatoes, yams, cassava and plantain: these contain more starch than anything else, so they don't count as a portion.
- Fruitcake/fruit yoghurts: these contain little fruit and also have added sugar, fat and other ingredients. So we should be trying to keep these to a minimum in the diet.
- Fruit-flavoured soft drinks: these usually contain minimal fruit and are high in sugar.
- Tomato ketchup, jam and chutneys: these have high salt/sugar content.
How to eat 'five a day' on a budget
Getting at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day doesn't have to be expensive. Some ways to cut the cost are:
- Make use of markets. You can often get cheap deals and bargains.
- Look out for offers in supermarkets such as 'buy one, get one free'.
- Choose loose fruit and vegetables - check the price labels and compare how much they are per kilogram (kg).
- Look out for the reduced section in supermarkets. Sometimes you'll find price cuts on fruit and vegetables that are on the shelves for their last day.
- Go later in the evening to local stalls and get a bargain on fruit and vegetables that may otherwise go to waste
- Buy in season, as this is when fruit and vegetables tend to be cheaper.
- Frozen or dried fruit and vegetables can be cheaper and you don't need to worry about them going off too quickly.
- Tinned fruit and vegetables such as tinned tomatoes, beans, pulses, carrots, sweetcorn and peas are cheap. They can be added to casseroles, stews, soups, bolognese, curries, stir-fries or pasta dishes. Try to avoid those with added salt or sugar.
- Vegetables that are soon to go out of date can be used to make soups. These can then be frozen and eaten later.
- Vegetables are usually cheaper than meat. So, by adding more vegetables to meat dishes, you can make them go further.
- Many fruits and vegetables are easy to grow yourself, even if you don't have a big garden. There are some which can be grown on a kitchen windowsill.
Further help & information
Dr Tim Kenny
Dr Jan Sambrook
Dr Helen Huins