Remember when we were being urged to eat five portions of fruit & veg a day?
Some of us decided that it was worth a shot, so we began watching our fruit and veg intake, bearing in mind that potatoes couldn’t be included, and fruit juice could only count once.
Then, not so long ago, someone decided that five wouldn’t cut the mustard and we needed to eat seven portions a day. Again, potatoes didn’t count, and the rule was still ‘more veg than fruit’, with an additional warning that fruit could only count as two of your five portions.
And now what do we hear? Five isn’t enough. Seven isn’t even enough. Now we are supposed to eat ten portions of fruit and veg a day – well, actually, make that ‘at least ten’ and again, the emphasis is on the veg … except potatoes. And sweet potatoes. And cassava. And it’s no good hypothesising that the wheat ‘berry’ is the fruit of the plant so why not include bread and pasta, because the answer is still no.
Hands up all those who eat five-a-day. Seven? Alright. How about ten? Yep, I thought so – a deafening silence … except you at the back there, and you can sit down because we don’t believe you1.
But wait! There is a burning question still to be answered, isn’t there? And I bet you don’t know the answer. What constitutes a portion?
Is it, for instance, one tomato? Fine, which size? Are we talking cherry tomatoes, or those smacking great beefy slicing tomatoes? What size pear? How many green beans – and what type? How many peas? How many stalks of celery – and is that large or small stalks, the big ones from the outside, or the little skinny sweet ones from the heart? Cooked or raw? And does that apply to everything, or just some types of foods?
Well, as it happens, I have done that bit of research and I can now answer this for you. It’s 400g in total if you’re on five-a-day, and 800g for ten, with raw veg coming out slightly ahead of cooked. Interestingly, there is no difference in recommended quantity between raw and cooked, despite the fact that we cannot digest all that uncooked cellulose, so a lot of that raw carrot is actually nutritionally unavailable to us. Does it matter? Do we need to absorb it, or is the fibre the important component? And if fibre is the most important factor, why don’t wholemeal breads and cereals count?
You will notice, dear reader, that 800g is getting on for a kilo of fruit & veg. Greengrocers up and down the country must be rubbing their hands with glee!
But wait … How can we eat nearly a kilo of fruit & veg each day without unbalancing our diets and/or missing out on important vitamins, minerals and trace elements? And how can we do it without increasing our food intake and putting on weight?
We’ve been told that whole grains are essential to our health, being particularly good for our hearts (and to help prevent Type 2 diabetes) and we need to eat ‘at least three portions a day’ The American Heart Association goes further and says ‘six to eight’.
We’ve been advised to eat more fish – especially oily fish – because of the beneficial effect on our blood pressure & cholesterol levels. We’ve been told it’s good for the skin, brain and nervous system because of the vitamins and good fats that it contains.
How about dairy? Here we come to one of the most argued topics, with government advice on the subject being described as ‘baffling’ and ‘contradictory’. On the one hand we are told that a Parliamentary report issued last spring recommended that we should up our intake to three portions a day to improve the nation’s health, and on the other hand, Public Health England says we should severely curtail it to no more than 200 calories a day from dairy for men and 160 calories for women (which, according to the Telegraph, would be gone in a single latte) However, pregnant, lactating and menopausal women have a high requirement for calcium and need 1,200mg daily.
Then there are all the studies which come out and say we should eat a handful of blueberries a day for this reason, a handful of almonds a day for that, or a handful of walnuts, or seeds, or a tablespoon of coconut oi, or linseed. Or so many cups of green tea. Apples and cider vinegar for our acid reflux, etc, etc.
Once upon a time I went to a nutritionist and I asked the question ‘how can I lose weight without missing out on essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements?’ I wanted her to help me to plan a diet, taking these factors into account, and you know what? She couldn’t do it. It seems you can either get your recommended daily intakes of the major food groups and those pesky little vitamins, minerals and trace elements, OR you can lose weight, but you can’t do both. I am now questioning whether it is possible to eat 800g of fruit and veg while maintaining the recommended intakes of everything else.
Lastly, I have found a paper written by a British cancer researcher and published in the BMJ journal ‘Gut’ which states that too much fibre may be implicated in bowel cancer development.
See, in the past we’ve been advised to ‘Go to Work on an Egg’, switch to margarine rather than butter, and use artificial sweeteners to help cut down on sugar, and each one of those recommendations has been reversed. Now, palm oil is all the rage because it’s supposed to be healthier. I’m willing to bet that time will prove that it isn’t healthy at all, but quite the reverse – and in the meantime, its cultivation is devastating whole ecological systems in the countries where it is grown.
Personally, I think most people should eat more fruit and vegetables, less fat, more wholegrains and less sugar2. I love vegetables. I’m that woman in the restaurant who orders a side of veg in addition to the ones that come on the plate and eats her husband’s broccoli into the bargain, but I still find it nigh-on impossible to eat 800g of the stuff, and I just think that before people start recommending ‘eat more of this’ and ‘eat less of that’ they should make sure they have all the facts, and they have them right.
The study that sparked this recent recommendation appears to be flawed. Some of the factors were not followed through, some data was missing, they didn’t ask about other aspects of the diet, and it was self-reported, for heaven’s sake. They simply asked a whole bunch of people what they ate yesterday and how much exercise they took, measured them at set intervals, and followed their mortality over the years. Perhaps more tellingly, it says ‘This study has found a strong association, but not necessarily a causal relationship’. And on the basis of this, a whole nation has been advised to change their diets.
1 – Just kidding!
2 – Personally, I think sugar is our biggest problem, but maybe that’s just me.
A quick internet search will throw up a lot of date (much of it contradictory), but some of the references I’ve used are listed below:
It’s still worth getting your five a day
Five a day should be upped to seven a day
Whole Grains – eat three portions a day to reduce risk of total mortality, in particular cardiovascular disease (NICE evidence search: an analysis of fourteen studies from reliable sources)
Advice on dairy foods ‘baffling’