Seven a Day Keeps the Doctor Away?

According to research by University College London, released this week, eating seven portions of fruit and vegetables daily is the magic number, not five as per the current Government health guidelines. 

 Image: She Knows

Image: She Knows

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, examined the diets of over 65,000 people in England over a twelve-year period – from 2001 to 2013.

The study found that the risk of death from any cause was cut by 42 per cent for people who ate seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables daily compared to people who managed only one portion. It was also associated with a 25% lower risk of cancer and 31% lower risk of heart disease or stroke.

According to the study the risk of death from any cause was reduced on a sliding scale depending on the volume of fruits and vegetables consumed:

  • 14% by eating one to three portions of fruit or vegetables per day;
  • 29% for three to five portions of fruit or vegetables per day;
  • 36% for five to seven portions of fruit or vegetables per day; and
  • 42% for seven or more portions of fruit or vegetables per day (up to around 10 portions a day).

In the context of the study a "portion" means about 80g (3oz), meaning or "one large fruit or a handful of smaller fruit or veg" according to Dr Oyinlola Oyebode, who led the study.

When considering the results of research such as the current study there are also other factors to consider, mainly that the average person consuming seven or more portions of fresh fruits and vegetables daily will tend to subscribe to a more healthy lifestyle in general for example, being a non-smoker, exercising regularly and drinking in moderation. While the researchers at UCL claim to have taken such social and lifestyle factors into account, the impact of such factors shouldn’t be underestimated.

Nonetheless, Dr Oyebode (as quoted by the BBC) described the results of the research as “staggering”. "The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die - at any age", she explained.

 Dr Oyebode and her colleagues also confirmed that not all fruits and veggies were created equal. The research found that the preventative effects were strongest in fresh vegetables followed by salad and then fresh fruit. On the flip side the study found that fruit juice provides no benefit at all while canned or frozen fruit actually increases your chances of dying by 17 per cent.

The researchers have admitted that they are unsure how to interpret these findings. While frozen and canned fruit were grouped together in the study, they are not generally accepted as having the same nutritional profile. While frozen fruit is generally considered to have the same nutritional benefits as fresh fruit, canned fruit is commonly stored in sugar syrups packed full of nasties which negate much of their health benefits. This is also strange given that the study found frozen vegetables conferred the same reduction in risk as fresh vegetables. One possibility is that people who eat predominately frozen or tinned fruit have less access to fresh produce generally which could indicate a less healthy diet in general. The team at UCL have acknowledged that more work needs to be done on this area to see whether the problem is sweetened, tinned fruit which is skewing the results.

The study also raises questions around how these findings fit into the recent findings on the devastating health effects of sugar. While we don’t have the time or space to outline the science in detail here, at it’s most basic our body processes sugar as sugar whether it’s from a good source (such as fruit) or bad (a Snickers bar) although obviously fruit provides additional nutritional benefits compared to a chocolate bar. The World Health Organisation has recently halved its daily sugar recommendation which now equates to around 6 tsp. Given that one banana alone can swallow up your entire daily allowance, it follows that packing your seven a day full of fruit may negate the positive effects shown by the study (something we are currently grappling with here at The Holist). Therefore you should try and ensure your daily intake is skewed heavily in favour of vegetables. The UK Government would do well to look towards Australia where they recommend a “5+2” approach, with five portions of vegetables and only two portions of fruit.

Public health commentators have criticised the findings, saying that changing the Government’s official five-a-day message would be confusing and that it is hard enough to get people to eat five portions and that seven will seem so unrealistic that people will be deterred. At present, only one in four Britons manages to eat 5-a-day and just one in 10 teenagers.

So is seven or even ten portions of fruit and vegetables realistic? While we will admit that here at The Holist HQ we subscribe to a healthier lifestyle than the average Britain, we do believe it is possible for the average person to achieve. Using Dr Oyebode’s portion size guide we’ve set out a pretty typical weekday menu from The Holist HQ below and totted up the totals to show it isn’t as hard as it sounds. 

While the study isn’t perfect, in our opinion, any findings that encourage people to eat more fruit and veggies rather than processed junk is a good thing and should be celebrated.

Do you manage seven portions a day or struggle to hit five? What are your secrets? We’d love to hear your thoughts below!

Typical day at The Holist HQ

  * True to their official classification we’ve treatedtomatoes as a fruit not a vegetable.

Breakfast: Green Smoothie

Kale (0.5), Spinach (0.5), Celery (0.5), Alfalfa Sprouts (0.5), Romaine (0.5), Banana (0.5), Kiwi (0.5), Apple (0.5)

= 2.5 portions vegetables, 1.5 portions fruit.

Lunch: Rocket Salad

Rocket (1), Cucumbers (1), Cherry Tomatoes* (1), Pumpkin Seeds, Sunflower Seeds, Walnuts and Avocado Oil

= 2 portions vegetables, 1 portion fruit.

Dinner: Baked Salmon

Salmon, Garlic (0.1), Roasted Tomatoes (1), Sweet Potatoes (1) and Broccoli (1)

= 2.1 portions vegetables, 1 portion fruit.

TOTAL = 6.6 portions vegetables, 3.5 portions fruit