Fruits and vegetables are not only delicious but also highly versatile. They are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fibre and a variety of phytochemicals which are crucial for maintaining good health. These nutrients also act as powerful antioxidants that protect the body from harmful free radicals present in pollutants, which can cause diseases.
Studies have proven that people who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables are at a lower risk of developing various diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancers including mouth, throat, stomach, bowel and lung cancers.
In fact, it has been estimated that one-third of all cancers are likely to develop due to an unhealthy diet, hence consuming a healthy and balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the second most important cancer prevention strategy, after quitting smoking.
Fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables all count. Also, pulses can count for one of your five-a-day.
Remember that potatoes, yam, plantain, and cassava do not contribute towards your five-a-day because they are starchy foods. But, sweet potatoes, parsnips and butternut squash do count!
What about fruit/vegetable juices and smoothies
A glass (150ml) of unsweetened 100 per cent fruit, vegetable juice or smoothie also counts as one portion. However, no matter how much you drink (for example more than 150ml), or how many varieties of fruit juice, it will still only count as one of your portions per day because the juicing process removes most of the fibre from the fruit.
Crushing fruit into juice releases the sugars contained in the fruit. So, to reduce the impact on teeth, enjoy a small glass at mealtimes.
How much is a portion?
One portion is 80g or any of the following:
- one banana, orange, pear or apple or a similar sized fruit
- half a grapefruit or avocado
- a slice of large fruit such as melon or pineapple
- two satsumas, plums or similar sized fruit
- a handful of grapes
- two handfuls of blueberries or raspberries
- one heaped tablespoon of dried fruit, such as sultanas, currants or cranberries, or three heaped tablespoons of fruit salad (fresh/tinned in fruit juice).
- three heaped tablespoons of vegetables (raw, cooked, frozen or tinned)
- three heaped tablespoons of any ‘pulse’ – beans, peas or lentils (however much you eat, pulses only count as one of your five a day)
- one cereal bowl of lettuce, watercress or spinach
Eating fruits and vegetables has been proven to provide numerous health benefits. It can reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes, and some types of cancer (up to 30% and 20%, respectively). Furthermore, it can delay the development of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, alleviate asthma symptoms, improve digestive health, and help manage diabetes. Additionally, fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories and high in fibre, which can help you maintain a healthy weight.
How much should you eat?
The World Health Organization and the Department of Health recommend that we consume at least five portions of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables every day. This should constitute just over one-third of our daily food intake.
It’s also important to encourage children to eat at least five different portions of fruits and vegetables daily. Our tastes and preferences for food are usually established in early childhood, so children who consume a variety of fruits and vegetables are more likely to continue doing so as they grow into teenagers and adults. There is no specific guidance on how much children should consume, but a helpful rule of thumb is the amount that fits into the palm of their hand is one portion.
Top tips to get your five-a-day
1. Opt for fresh produce that is in season. They are more likely to be locally grown, offer better value for money, and often taste better.
2. Eat a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables. Each colour group contains its own combination of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. To get the most benefit, try to eat at least one portion from each colour group.
3. Cut down or avoid using butter, cream, or cheese sauces when preparing your fruits and vegetables. Even though they are low in calories, their calorie content is determined by what you prepare them with.
4. Be mindful of how many dried fruits you consume. A 30g portion of dried fruits, such as apricots, dates, raisins, etc., counts towards your five-a-day. However, once fruit is dried, it also becomes a concentrated source of sugar and calories. To minimize damage to teeth, consume them during mealtimes and not as a between-meal snack.
5. Check nutrition information on labels and look out for the ‘5-a-day’ logo. Vegetables contained in convenience foods such as ready-meals, pasta sauces, and takeaway meals can contribute to your five-a-day. However, many of these foods may be high in added salt, sugar, or fat. Check the nutrition information to see whether you can get your five-a-day in a healthier way.
6. Reduce your meat portion sizes and add more vegetables and pulses to stews, curries, and casseroles to get extra flavour, texture, and plant-based nutrition.
7. Treat your fruit and veggies right. Nutrients in fruits and vegetables can be easily destroyed during food preparation and by heat. Whenever possible, eat them raw. When cooking vegetables, try steaming, microwaving, roasting, or poaching rather than boiling to keep the maximum amount of nutrients.
8. Keep your freezer and cupboards well stocked with frozen and/or canned vegetables and fruits. They are a convenient alternative to fresh varieties, stay fresher for longer, and count towards your five-a-day.
Do I need supplements?
Supplements are not a substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Don’t rely on supplements to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs unless you have been told to by a health professional, for example by a health visitor when you are planning a pregnancy.
A well-balanced diet containing plenty of fruits and vegetables is cheaper and more nutritious than taking supplements. It is also possible that certain supplement combinations can be damaging to the body. For more information, talk to your GP or another health professional like a dietitian.
Breakfast: A bowl of wholegrain breakfast cereal with a sliced banana and a glass of pure fruit juice.
Mid-morning snack: Munch your favourite raw vegetable crudités – cherry tomatoes, button mushrooms, carrots batons or celery sticks.
Lunch: Add a side salad to your lunchtime sandwich, and a small pack of dried raisins.
Mid-afternoon snack: Ditch the biscuits for fresh melon or mango slices.
Dinner: Indulge in a spicy chilli or hearty winter casserole packed full of seasonal vegetables.
Achieving the five-a-day target is not too hard. By eating at least five portions of a variety of fruits and vegetables a day, you will not only look and feel better, you will also give your body many essential nutrients that it needs to maintain your overall long-term health.
Developed by Twané Walker – Registered Dietitian
British Dietetic Association – Food facts.
British Heart Foundation