By Holly Giles | Deputy Editor
5-a-day is a slogan that many of us will have grown up with hearing and know that it is the recommended daily fruit and vegetable intake for optimum health. However, researchers at the American Heart Association have been diving deeper into the phrase and finding out if some vegetables are better than others.
The study analysed data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professional Follow-Up Study, including more than 100,000 adults and their dietary intakes for up to 30 years. They repeatedly collected information about the intake of these individuals every 2-4 years for 30 years to see their dietary intake and health changes over time. The study also pooled health and disease data from 26 studies to increase the data set further.
They found that eating five servings of fruit and vegetables daily was associated with the lowest risk of death, showing 5-a-day is the recipe for success we were always told. Interestingly the study showed no additional disease benefits for eating more than 5 portions a day. Compared to individuals who only ate two portions a day, those with a full five had a 13% lower risk of death overall. THis was broken down into a 12% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, 10% lower risk of death from cancer and a 35% lower risk of death from respiratory diseases, showing the many systems affected by this intake.
They also looked at the ideal composition of the five portions and showed that two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables was associated with the greatest benefits.
Finally, the study found that not all fruits and vegetables have the same benefits. Starchy vegetables, such as peas, corn and potatoes, were not associated with a reduced risk of death from all causes and were more disease-specific. Conversely, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and lettuce, and food rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, like citrus and berries, showed additional benefits. This highlights the importance of a balanced diet of fruit and vegetables in order to get the most benefits to our health.
Reflecting on these findings, lead author Dong Wang, an epidemiologist and nutritionist from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said:
“This amount [5-a-day] likely offers the most benefit in terms of prevention of major chronic disease and is a relatively achievable intake for the general public,” he said. “We also found that not all fruits and vegetables offer the same degree of benefit, even though current dietary recommendations generally treat all types of fruits and vegetables, including starchy vegetables, fruit juices and potatoes, the same.”
This was continued by Anne Throndike, Chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee:
“This research provides strong evidence for the lifelong benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and suggests a goal amount to consume daily for ideal health. Fruits and vegetables are naturally packaged sources of nutrients that can be included in most meals and snacks, and they are essential for keeping our hearts and bodies healthy.”
Variety was also the key message of Public Health England in their Q&A about the 5-a-day campaign, urging people to have a “variety of fresh, frozen, tinned, dried and juiced fruit and vegetables every day to ensure you get all the different nutrients needed.”
The study highlights the importance of eating fruit and vegetables daily but a health survey for England estimates that only 28% of adults are reaching this daily quota. This decreases further with young people with an estimated 18% of children aged 5-15 reaching the five-portion marker. With increasing knowledge about the importance of this, it is hoped this figure will increase in the upcoming years.
There is mixed evidence about the effect of eating fruit and vegetables on COVID-19 and while it is not a miracle-cure, eating fruit and vegetables boost the immune system and may help you fight off infections.
Whilst the study does not paint a complete picture, as it is not possible to know the activity levels of the participants which would also have had an effect on health, it does show a clear picture of the importance of eating your daily fruit and veg. The study suggests an apple (or two!) a day really does seem to keep the doctor away.