10 portions of fruit and veg a day now recommended: are they kidding?

10 portions of fruit and veg a day now recommended: are they kidding?

The Times et al advised us on 24th Feb that we should be eating 10 portions of fruit and veg a day, not 5. Surely they are kidding? Here is my take on their article and the subject in general. 

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The ‘five a day’ campaign is built on misinformation anyway, but let’s have a look at the pros and cons of eating plenty of fruit and veg. Here are my comments in brief, and then I’ll look at what they said in more detail:

I believe one of the reasons for this apparent need for more vegetables is because the more processed food we eat, the more we need veges to mop up the damage.

Another reason (I believe) is because veges don’t contain as many nutrients as they did a generation and more ago because of our excessive use of NPK fertilisers; in fact, some the benefits of the veges may be outweighed by the pesticides they are bathed in…

Of course, veges are tasty, add variety to our meals (and make up the whole meal for vegans), and the fibre, while not digestible by us, is good to help prevent constipation and is essential food for good gut bacteria.

Fruit is also tasty and a source of some nutrients and fibre when in its whole form; eating lots of sweet fruit and drinking fruit juices, however, is not at all good for you – see why here.

Of course, many people live without fruit and vegetables in their diet: some healthily (such as indigenous populations who live off the land) and some unhealthily (because they, for whatever reason, love off processed foods).

One thing very apparent in the article is that, once more, the reporters are mixing up association and causality: these are not the same, and never should be reported as such. In addition, they are also leaving out data which are inconvenient: some of the fruit and veg were not at all associated with health benefits. lastly, some of the studies quoted are based on remembering what you have eaten in the past weeks/months… I don’t know about you, but unless I keep a food diary, I can barely remember what I ate a couple of days ago!

Essentially, you will more likely live longer by cooking from scratch, de-stressing, exercising, living in an area where the air is clean and singing a lot.

Here’s The Times article and my take on it:

If you find hitting the five-a-day target tricky, look away now. Scientists have concluded that ten portions of fruit and vegetables is the real goal.

Based on what data? So far NO studies or meta-analyses have shown any correlation, never mind causation, between fruit and veg consumption and weight loss or prevention against cancer.

Anyone wanting the maximum protection against heart disease, cancer and early death should eat 800 grams of fruit and vegetables a day, double the government’s advice, a large study has shown.

Not if you interpret the stats properly, it hasn’t!

The research into fruit and vegetable intake analysed data from 95 studies involving about two million people.

Here they are failing to separate fruit from vegetables, and starchy vegetables from the rest.

While five portions a day — about 400 grams — did reduce disease risk, the greatest benefit came from eating double that.

Reduce what diseases by what percentage from what starting point?

Fewer than a third of British adults are thought to meet even the present target.

This is most probably true. Here we need to be asking questions such as what else are they eating (this affects how much we need of fruit and vegetables), why are they not eating more fruit and vegetables (there are many and varied answers here), are the items they buy fresh, and more.

An 80 gram portion of fruit is equivalent to about one apple, banana or pear, two plums or satsumas, or half a grapefruit.

I presume here they mean an 80g portion equates to one of the five/ten. Here you need to be looking at how much sugar they contain and how much you are eating in total; for example, eating a Cox apple and a small handful of blueberries is not the same as eating two very ripe bananas and a handful of dried dates, or chugging back the orange juice.

Three heaped tablespoons of cooked vegetables such as carrots, peas, or sweetcorn count as one portion, as do two broccoli spears or four heaped tablespoons of cooked kale or spinach.

A helpful guide, so be aware you would need 30+ tablespoons of vegetables a day. That would be hard to eat it all at supper time, so start planning your day now!

Unsweetened fruit juice, vegetable juice or smoothies can only ever count as one of your five a day.

Unsweetened fruit juice still contains large amounts of sugar (glucose and fructose) and none of the valuable fibre that’s needed to slow down how quickly those sugars hit your body. Many fruit juices on the shelves have lost what little nutrition they had when first processed.

Beans and pulses also count as one portion per day, no matter how much you eat.

I don’t really count these as ‘vegetables’. They can be very tasty and they add cheap bulk to a meal and provide fibre. Beans and pulses, however, contain lectins, which can cause bloating and discomfort, especially if you have more of the not so good bacteria in your gut.

Dagfinn Aune, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said: “Our results suggest that although five portions of fruit and vegetables is good, ten a day is even better.”

‘Our results suggest’ is not a phrase I want to see as a conclusion to a science study! It sounds very vague.

Compared with people who ate none at all, those on ten a day reduced their risk of heart disease by 24 per cent, stroke by 33 per cent and cardiovascular disease by 28 per cent. They had a 13 per cent lower risk of cancer and a 31 per cent reduction in the risk of dying prematurely. For those managing five a day, the figures were 14 per cent, 26 per cent, 19 per cent, 12 per cent and 24 per cent respectively.

We don’t have the starting figures here, nor a breakdown by age, gender or race, and we don’t see what else they eat, how much exercise they do, and how much stress they have. It is interesting, however, that the more vegetables eaten the better the results. I would like to know if eating more veges means these people are less disposed to eating junk food, or are too full to eat much junk, stop eating junk – and so on.

If everyone on the planet ate ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day, 7.8 million premature deaths could be prevented each year, the researchers calculated.

Hmm, that’s sounding like an essay soundbite I would have expected from my new year 10 GCSE students when I was teaching science: it’s an interesting little calculation at best and we would use it to explore why this would not happen (yet, anyway), and what we could do instead.

Dr Aune said: “Every portion of fruits and vegetables helps so it’s not all or nothing. We find even significant reductions with an intake of only two portions per day but the more fruit and vegetables you eat the lower your risk of these diseases or dying prematurely is.”

It’s one factor in one’s life. Remember, I love vegetables, but I know just eating more of them won’t necessarily help. A much better help to one’s health would be to not eat processed foods, anything with grains in (especially wheat) and to pour fruit juices down the drain.

Fruit and vegetables have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels and blood pressure while boosting the health of blood vessels and the immune system, Dr Aune said. “This may be due to the complex network of nutrients they hold. For instance they contain many antioxidants, which may reduce DNA damage, and lead to a reduction in cancer risk.

A reduction in cholesterol is not healthy! A reduction in inflammatory cascades and the subsequent damaged areas (where cholesterol appears to help the mopping up operation) is. Helping blood pressure and the integrity of blood vessels, and possibly reducing DNA damage sound great news, so why are they using the word ‘may’?

“It is clear from this work that a high intake of fruit and vegetables holds tremendous health benefits, and we should try to increase their intake in our diet.”

I maintain we can attain better health by avoiding grains and processed foods, eating free range, non corn-fed, meat (keeping the skin and fat on) and fish, and moving around/exercising, managing stress, etc. Yes, pile fresh (not old) vegetables onto your plate (going for less starchy ones if you are looking to lose weight) and have bits of fruit as treats, but don’t expect just doing that will make you better in and of itself.

He added that if people were struggling to eat five a day, they could consider concentrating on the types of fruit and vegetables associated with reduced risk, according to the research. These include leafy green vegetables to stave off heart disease and yellow vegetables to protect against cancer.

Yes, a variety of colour is pleasing to the eye and palate and provides a range of phytonutrients which our bodies can use. Non vegetarians: amino acid-, vitamin- and mineral-wise, you will do better eating meat, especially organ meat as meats have much higher concentrations of the nutrients we need. Vegetarians and vegans: make sure you eat a wide range of foods to get the nutrients you need, and supplement with B12. (I know many of you do – I also know ‘vegetarians’ who think a bowl of sugary cereal and a cheese sandwich are fine for the first two meals of the day…)

The researchers, whose study is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, said that compounds called glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage activate enzymes that may help to prevent cancer, and that fruit and vegetables might have a beneficial effect on naturally occurring bacteria in the gut.

Why are we seeing the words ‘may’ and ‘might’? This does not fill me with confidence! (I love cruciferous vegetables, but I also note populations around the world who only eat vegetables because all else has failed, and they do well on their meat/blubber/blood/milk diets.)

Sarah Toule, head of health information at World Cancer Research Fund, said: “This interesting research shows just how incredibly important vegetables and fruit are as part of a healthy diet. In fact, they’re essential for maintaining a healthy weight, which our own evidence has shown reduces the risk of 11 common cancers.”

Let’s assume Sarah Toule is right on how vegetables help (dismiss the fruit; it’s a lovely treat, but we don’t have to have it), and that keeping to a healthy weight helps keep down cancer rates, but don’t let’s assume that eating vegetables is the way to losing weight. If you want to lose weight, cut out sugar, starches and grains (and dairy if necessary) and eat meals that are prepared from scratch.

Let’s also spare a thought for those who are underweight – the way this is worded makes me think telling an underweight person to eat vegetables would end up in them fading away!

Of course, the whole subject is much more complex, but why is it being reduced to a simplistic ‘eat more veg and fruit’ message. Is it just a marketing message, for example?

What should you eat?
The research found that the more of any fruit and vegetables you eat, the better your chances against killer diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease — and the lower your chances of an early death.

Apples and pears, citrus fruits, salads and green leafy vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and chicory, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, as well as tomatoes and vitamin C-rich fruit and vegetables, were found to have particular protective effects against heart disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Berries and potatoes also appeared to protect against early death.

Green vegetables, such as spinach or green beans, yellow vegetables, such as peppers and carrots, and cruciferous vegetables appeared to cut cancer risk.

Nice words, and comforting if true (though note the word ‘appeared’), but look very carefully at what else you also do/don’t consume, and what your lifestyle is like with reference to drinking (alcohol and fruit juices), smoking, exercise, mental and physical stress, and also at where you are now in terms of general health and how much fat and muscle you have or not.

My general advice can be summed up thus: eat real food, move around and moderate your alcohol intake, and you will do a lot better.

For a more statistic take on this, see Zoe Harcombe’s article.

See some amusing comments on the Guardian Online’s version of the article.

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