The recommendation to aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day emerged from the strong and vast evidence that people who eat diets rich in fruit and vegetables have significantly lower rates of disease. Scientists attributed this not just to the important vitamins and minerals provided by eating fruit and vegetables, such as folate and vitamin C, but also to other components they contain such as soluble fibre, which can help lower blood cholesterol levels, and naturally occurring chemicals known collectively as phytochemicals. It is the presence of these phytochemicals that has elevated many fruit and vegetables to superfood status. In reality, it is hard to find a fruit or vegetable that isn’t a superfood, as they all contain a varying array of these chemicals, scientists are still investigating their nature, function and potential health benefits.
Research is increasingly showing that these phytochemicals are very important to our health and that they have the ability to protect us from many diet-related diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Many of the phytochemicals have a powerful antioxidant effect, which can help to combat free radical damage known to be involved in the initiation of these diseases. The production of free radicals is a normal part of many bodily processes, we are also exposed to free radicals from the environment. Antioxidant nutrients are responsible for ‘mopping up’ free radicals, neutralising them and preventing them from causing damage to cells.
Our current intake of fruit and vegetables averages a rather poor two and half portions a day yet as we all know we’re meant to double this to eat at least 5-A-DAY. But what exactly is a portion and come to that what counts as a fruit or vegetable?
The World Cancer Research Fund recommends that we eat at least 400g of fruit and vegetables each day, which would mean five 80 g portions. But of course fruit and vegetables don’t come in uniform 80 g sizes. As a guide, some people have translated a portion as what would fit into a hand; so one apple, two satsumas, a small bunch of grapes and so on…
A small side salad would count as one portion, a salad as a main dish would count as two to three. Vegetables cooked as part of a dish, such as vegetable lasagne or vegetable curry would also count as two.
What is a portion?
√ Half a grapefruit, avocado or pepper.
√ One apple, orange, banana or medium-size tomato.
√ Two plums or apricots.
√ A handful of grapes or berries.
√ A slice of melon or pineapple.
√ One heaped tablespoon of dried fruit.
√ Three heaped tablespoons of cooked vegetables or beans and pulses.
√ A dessert bowl of salad.
√ A 150ml glass of fresh fruit juice.
Remember all fruit and vegetables count except potatoes. They can be fresh, frozen, canned, juiced, raw, cooked, or cooked as part of a dish. Baked beans do count, but only once no matter how much you eat and the same rule applies to orange juice, so 5 glasses of orange juice does not mean you have met your target. The key word here is variety.
√ Fresh – buy regularly as nutrient content falls quickly.
√ Canned – choose fruit in natural juice rather than syrup, and veg without added salt.
√ Frozen – often higher in some vitamins than week-old fresh foods.
√ Dried – contain the most of the nutrients of fresh fruit, except for some vitamins, a good source of fibre.
√ Juice – however much you drink, juice counts for only one portion because, when juiced, fruit loses fibre and releases sugar.
√ Pulses – again pulses count for only one portion, however much you eat. They are high in fibre but less concentrated in some nutrients than most other veg.
Aiding weight loss
When it comes to weight loss, employing the 5-A-DAY message can really help. It means you can concentrate on upping your fruit and veg intake rather than obsessing about all the naughty foods you know you should avoid. Positive thinking rather than feeling of deprivation!
If you need more inspiration for eating more fruit and veg other than just ‘they are good for you’;
consider the following benefits:
√ They can help to keep skin, hair and nails in tip-top condition – antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids and flavonoids boost collagen fibres and fight the free radicals that are involved in the ageing process.
√ They can help to keep you slim – the majority of fruit and veg have a high water and a low fat content, which means they are low in energy (calories). They make the best snacks between meals and can bulk up meals making you feel fuller without adding extra calories.
√ They can help to lower your chances of disease – 30% of cancers may be linked to diet.
√ They can help to protect your heart – antioxidants prevent cholesterol clogging arteries.
√ They can help to lower blood pressure – an effect of minerals potassium and magnesium found in most fruit and vegetables.
√ They can help to keep eyes healthy – specific phytochemicals stop sight deterioration.
√ They can help to prevent anaemia – due to iron content.
√ They can help to reduce premenstrual syndrome – an effect of vitamin B6.
Eating a variety of fruit and veg is extremely important part of healthy eating. That’s because the many of the chemicals that give fruit and vegetables their health benefits, also give them their colour. So by eating a range of colours and you’ll get a range of benefits. To make it easy, think in colour groups and aim to eat one thing from each group every day.
Pumpkins, carrots and oranges contain carotenoids (such as beta carotene). These antioxidants neutralise the free radicals that damage cells, and keep vision, heart and immune system healthy. Sweet potato contains the antioxidant vitamin E, as well as folates which are essential for cell division and blood-cell formation. Sweet corn contains potassium which keeps the body’s water levels in balance. Other orange/yellow options are peaches, apricots, yellow peppers, melons, mangoes and papaya.
Green peppers, parsley and kiwi fruit are packed with vitamin C which fights infection, aids cell repair, and enables iron to be absorbed from food. Broccoli, spinach and kale contain calcium (keeping teeth and bones healthy), iron (boosting oxygen-carrying red blood cells), and lutein (for good eyesight and healthy skin). Broccoli also contains cancer-busting compounds. Brussels sprouts contain the phytochemical sinigrin which curbs pre-cancerous cells. Avocados provide vitamin B6 (which keeps PMS at bay), plus essential fatty acids for heart and brain health. Apples are high in quercetin, guarding against lung cancer, heart disease and asthma. Other green options include green beans, spring greens, asparagus, peas and grapes.
Blueberries, blackberries, plums and radishes contain anthocyanadins. These fight ageing (preventing collagen breakdown and keeping capillaries healthy), and boost memory function and heart health. Plums contain catechin, a flavonoid that may prevent heart disease and cancer. Other blue/purple options are beetroot, blackcurrants, aubergines and raisins.
Tomatoes are packed with the carotenoid lycopene – a powerful antioxidant. Cooked tomato sauces are best as heating improves absorption of carotenoids. Cranberries contain proanthocyanidins, which keep your urinary tract healthy – the reason cranberry juice is good for cystitis. Red grapes contain resveratrol. This lowers the risk of heart disease and cancer – one reason an odd glass of red wine is fine. Pomegranates contain lots of vitamin C. They have three times the antioxidant power of green tea, fighting heart disease, cancer and cholesterol. Other red options are: red peppers, cherries, watermelon, raspberries and strawberries.
White and brown
Onions and garlic contain allicin which has antifungal and antibiotic properties, and protects the heart. Mushrooms contains selenium which protects against heart disease and cancer. Bananas contain potassium – essential for functioning muscle- and nerve-function, and balancing the body’s water levels. Swedes are full of fibre (for healthy digestion). Other white/brown options are cauliflower and parsnips.
Easy Ways To Eat More Fruit And Veg
√ Make simple muesli – whole oats, plus chopped apple, banana and dates.
√ Try mashed banana instead of sugary jam on toast.
√ Drink orange juice – but it should be pure, unsweetened juice.
√ Start with half a grapefruit.
√ Have grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, and some baked beans with poached egg and lean bacon.
√ Go for vegetable soup – make your own or check salt levels in bought soups.
√ Have salad – rocket, watercress and tomato perhaps – in your sandwich.
√ If you have tuna mayo in a roll or baked potato, add sweetcorn to the mix. Or choose tuna with chopped peppers, olives and capers.
√ If you have an omelette ask for onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and peppers rather than cheese.
√ Make guacamole (avocado, chopped onion, garlic and lime juice) and add to a wrap with strips of cooked chicken and coloured peppers.
√ Throw together a stir-fry with prawns or strips of lean chicken. Add aubergine, sugar snaps, red onion, yellow pepper and mushrooms and you’ll have vegetables from every colour category.
√ For pasta, choose a tomato-based sauce with onion and garlic rather than a cream-based sauce (two plum tomatoes from a can count as one portion).
√ Instead of mashed potato, add vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, swede) to the mix and have veggie-boosted mash.
√ Throw in frozen sweetcorn and peas when cooking rice.
√ Instead of deep-fried chips, bake chunky parsnip and sweet potato sticks in the oven with a little olive oil.
√ Add fresh berries to frozen yogurt.
√ Go for fruit salad or choose interesting fruit such as papaya, mango or pineapple which may feel more of a treat than apples or bananas.
√ Bake an apple in the oven and sprinkle with cinnamon and raisins.
Craving a sweet snack? Try dried fruit like cranberries, apricots or mango.
√ Whizz up a smoothie with natural yogurt and a handful of blueberries and raspberries (keep frozen berries handy in the freezer).
√ For savoury munches, dip carrot batons or broccoli pieces in hummus or spicy tomato salsa.