We all know we’re supposed to eat five portions of fruit and veg daily. It’s a message that has been drummed into us from youth, in the form of the universally traumatic Food Dudes initiative in primary school, reiterated by parents over soggy, overcooked root vegetables at dinnertime. Many of us may have long-since abandoned the premise; more of us will merely be ignorant of exactly what it means to get your five a day, convincing ourselves that two helpings of beans and chips with tomato ketchup is “basically all of your five-a-day”. Where did the notion of five-a-day come from, after all? Is it really as important as we were led to believe?
Although you might assume that the concept of five portions of fruit and vegetables daily is a scientifically sound number, calculated based on in-depth nutritional research, this is surprisingly untrue. After all, if you think about it critically, the entire food group of fruit and vegetables is so vast and diverse, and frequent vegetable consumers’ health outcomes are likely to be influenced by such a host of other factors (like their exercise habits, occupation, living environment and education level, to name but a few), it would actually be close to impossible to establish a certain magic number of fruits and vegetables as the key to a long, healthy life. The links between a diet rich in vegetables and good health are clear, but it is extremely difficult to pinpoint a precise daily quantity to protect us entirely from adverse health outcomes.
The premise of the five-a-day was in fact concocted by the American National Cancer Institute, alongside a number of fruit and vegetable companies in California in 1991. Evidently, there was a certain conflict of interest in the guidelines being set by companies who would undoubtedly benefit from a heightened intake of fruit and vegetables. For that reason, some nutritionists refute the notion of five-a-day, arguing that there is insufficient research to support any link between five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and reduced risk of cancer. They refer to the high levels of sugar (albeit natural sugar) in fruit, and the fact that the nutritional benefits of many fruits and vegetables can be totally negated by the way in which they are prepared, cooked or consumed. For instance, can strawberries dipped in melted chocolate, eaten with marshmallows and fudge really contribute to one’s five-a-day? What about a shop-bought smoothie with more sugar in it than a fizzy drink? The figure of five is arguably unjustified, and was merely an arbitrary number decided upon because it seems somewhat attainable to most, and can be counted on one hand, making it easily memorable.
These are valid concerns, and it is clear that the messaging surrounding the five-a-day needs improvement. That said, the benefits of fruits and vegetables generally are well known to us – as excellent sources of certain vitamins, antioxidants, and fibre. Fruit and vegetables are generally low in fat, salt, and cholesterol too. All of these benefits contribute to our immunity and general wellbeing, and lower our risk of suffering from obesity, type two diabetes, coronary heart disease and bowel cancer. Although the figure of five-a-day may be somewhat random, eating lots of fruit and vegetables is undoubtedly a good thing to do for your health, so I wouldn’t be throwing away the idea of five-a-day too hastily. Aside from the nutritional benefits of eating fruit and vegetables, they can also serve as vibrant and versatile additions to one’s diet, adding colour, flavour and texture to meals. Most fruits and vegetables are available quite cheaply too, and are time-efficient to prepare, making them all the more essential in the diet of a student.
Really and truly, the benefits of consuming your five-a-day all come down to how you do it, and knowing how to get the most out of the fruit and vegetables you eat. Here are my five tips to achieving your five-a-day in the best way.
1. One of the primary flaws of the messaging around five-a-day is people not knowing what counts towards their five-a-day. We are told to strive towards five “portions” of fruit and vegetables daily without fully knowing what constitutes a portion. The general rule is 80g of fresh, frozen or canned fruit or vegetables, or around 30g of dried fruit. The BBC Good Food website has an online resource with helpful infographics of what one portion of different fruits and vegetables look like, so that’s well worth a look if you’re uncertain about whether or not you’re consuming enough. Unfortunately, our beloved potatoes do not contribute to your five-a-day, although sweet potatoes do, due to heightened levels of vitamin A.
2. The key to benefitting from your five-a-day is variety. Although you might like the idea of tucking into an entire trough of cauliflower cheese or sweet potato fries, it’s important to eat an array of different types of fruit and vegetables to fully reap their many rewards. A good tip is to try and “eat the rainbow” – incorporate different colours of fruit and vegetables daily, as fruits and vegetables of the same colour often share properties. For instance, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli are good sources of Vitamin E, folate and iron, whereas orange coloured fruits and vegetables like carrots and oranges are rich in beta-carotene, which is converted to Vitamin A for healthy vision, skin and immune function. By mixing up the colours of the fruit and vegetables we consume, we can maximise their wide-ranging health benefits, and enjoy a variety of flavours and textures, so eating our five-a-day feels like less of a chore.
3. Limit your intake of heavily processed fruit and vegetables. We should try to reduce our intake of heavily processed food products anyway, but when it comes to fruit and vegetables, many convenience products that promise a fast-track to your five-a-day are really just loaded with preservatives and flavourings to prolong their shelf life. Shop-bought soups and sauces are particularly guilty of being high in salt, which can contribute to high blood pressure, so they are best avoided, especially when making your own is so much cheaper and healthier.
Obviously, however, fruit and vegetables are perishable, and there’s nothing worse than an overly ambitious trip to the supermarket, in which we resolve to buy loads of healthy vegetables for the week ahead only to be left with soggy salad leaves and brown avocados a few days later. For this reason, you must be smart with the types of processed fruit and vegetables you buy. Frozen fruit and vegetables are perfect, for example, as freezing preserves the product while retaining most of the flavour, texture and nutrients that are sometimes lost during more extensive processing or preserving methods. As well as that, tinned tomatoes or pulses like kidney beans or chickpeas are handy time-savers to stock up on, with little change to the nutritive value of the vegetables. Stocking up on tinned tomatoes and beans, and a couple of bags of frozen peas and berries can be a real time-saver for students, without missing out on the health benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables.
4. Just as some nutrients can be lost during extensive processing, the method in which you prepare and cook your vegetables can also affect their nutritional value. Vitamin C in particular is easily destroyed by light, heat and dissolving in water. For that reason, it is best to eat your fruit and vegetables raw, or at least cooked al dente (meaning “with a bite”). Steaming, microwaving or roasting are good alternatives to boiling vegetables in order to hold on to as many vitamins as possible. This also prevents soggy and bland vegetables, so they will taste better too!
5. Finally, if you’re still daunted by the thought of so many portions of fruit and vegetables, just try to think of one way to add them into one of your meals each day. Why not add some fried or grilled cherry tomatoes to your scrambled eggs in the morning, or mix in some peas with your mashed potatoes, or add peppers to your pasta? Embrace new vegetables in stir fries, curries or bolognaise, and experiment with different salads. Better still, trade in fruit and vegetables for other less virtuous snack options. Try bringing some raisins with you the next time you head to campus for study, and enjoy them on your breaks instead of a chocolate bar. Embrace fruit and vegetables entirely by grabbing some cheese, crackers and grapes, alongside some cut raw carrots, peppers and hummus for your next Netflix session. And remember, if you’ve got any food or health related thoughts, I’d love to hear from you! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org