The 5 a day message has been around for a long time now and it’s promoted by most health charities, health campaigns and government health departments. So what’s so important about fruit and veg and why is 5 the magic number?
Health benefits of fruit and veg
There are two main health benefits of eating fruit and vegetables: dietry fibre and micro nutrients. Fibre is important for the health of the digestive system, as it helps to carry waste through the system. Various diseases and disorders are associated with lack of fibre. Fibre only comes from plant foods, because it’s the cell walls of plants. We also obtain fibre from grains like wheat and rice – especially wholegrains – but this alone isn’t enough.
Micro nutrients are the vitamins and minerals that we need for all our body systems to function properly. We can get some of these from meat, dairy and grains, but there are some we need to eat fruit and veg for.
Superfoods, phytochemicals and antioxidants
As well as providing the vitamins and minerals essential to health, plants can help protect us against disease and ageing. Phytochemicals (chemicals in plants) can act as antioxidants, reducing oxidative damage in the body. This slows down ageing and reduces the risk of disease. They can also have other health-giving properties such as being anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic. Superfoods is a loose term used to describe foods which have a high quantity of beneficial phytochemicals. Examples are beetroot, watermelon and avocado.
Why 5 a day?
The 5 a day advice originates from research done by the World Health Organisation. They found that eating 5 x 80g portions of fruit and vegetables a day makes a significant difference to health. Of course, that doesn’t mean that fewer than 5 won’t do any good or that more than 5 won’t be even more beneficial. It’s just a good target to aim for.
What counts as one of your 5 a day
- Fresh fruit and veg: these are top of the list. Try to get as many of your 5 from these as you can.
- Frozen fruit and veg are a close second – some even argue that since they are frozen very soon after harvest they retain more nutrients.
- Canned and dried fruit and veg are a good way of topping up your intake. As they’ll keep for months in the store cupboard, you can always have a good stock of them. However, processing them destroys some of the nutrients, so ideally you should have fresh or frozen too. Note: the quantity of a portion of dried fruit is 30g not 80g (because there is no water weight).
- Juice is another convenient source, but the recommendation is that juice only counts as one portion per day, however much you drink. This is because there is no fibre in juice. There are also concerns about dental health and weight gain associated with drinking too much juice.
- Smoothies: if smoothies contain the whole fruits then they can count as more than one portion, but as with juices, dental health and weight gain may be an issue with drinking too many smoothies
- Beans and pulses can only count as one portion per day. Although they’re an excellent source of fibre, they don’t have the range of vitamins and minerals that fruit and vegetables have.
- Variety is important: each of your 5 portions should be different. So if you have an orange, a glass of orange juice won’t count as another portion. Or if you have grapes, then raisins and sultanas won’t count.
- Sweet potatoes count but ordinary white potatoes don’t
10 easy ways to get to 5 a day
- Snack on dried fruits: There’s a wide range of dried fruit available in the supermarkets. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, try mango or pineapple.
- Have a glass of juice a day: Although juice can only count as one portion, it’s an easy one to get in and can be a good way of getting a variety of phytonutrients into your diet. For example, watermelons are usually very large and aren’t the easiest fruit to prepare, so drinking a glass of watermelon juice is a good alternative.
- Buy ready prepared frozen veg: ingredients like chopped onions, peppers, mushrooms, carrots and sweet potato are handy for quick and easy stir-fries, soups and curries.
- Add chopped vegetables to scrambled egg or omelette
- Keep canned fruit (preferably in juice) in the store cupboard: ways you can use canned fruits include eating them with Greek yoghurt for a healthy dessert, using them in smoothies or pureeing them make frozen fruit pops.
- Add berries, chopped banana or dried fruit to your breakfast cereal
- Have vegetable soups for lunches or starters: vegetable soups can be as much as 3 portions. Buy good quality soups with a high vegetable content or, even better, make your own. For an extra portion, add some canned beans or lentils.
- Use sweet potato instead of white potatoes for jackets or wedges
- Add drained canned sweetcorn to tuna mayonnaise for sandwich fillings or jacket potato toppings,
- Keep bagged salad or boxes of sprouted seeds in the fridge to add to sandwiches