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Making sure you get your 7 a day

For a long time we’ve been advised by the government and the NHS that eating 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day is what we need to live a long and healthy life. Now, however, a study from University College London suggests that five may not be enough and that 23 should be upping that advice to seven.

The UCL study used results from the Health Survey for England for the period between 2001 and 2008 in which data was collected on people’s diet and lifestyle through questionnaires and nurse visits. Collating and comparing the fruit and vegetable consumption and death from cancer, heart disease and stokes, as well as general mortality, in 65,226 people. The findings, reported this week, show that the risk of death by any cause was reduced by 42% over the course of the study in those that ate more than seven portions of fruit and vegetables per week.

7 a day graph“The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die – at any age,” concluded Dr. Oyinlola Oyebode of UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, somewhat stating the obvious and pointing out that the classic suggestion of five a day does a lot of good, reducing chance of death by 29%, it just gets better the more fruit and veg that you eat.

There has, however been criticism of the research, suggesting that it does not take other lifestyle elements into account, such as the potential of reduced consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. The main criticism of the suggestion that we eat 7 portions per day, though, is that it’s impractical to try and make people eat this much when 5 a day is a struggle for many.

Indeed, the fact that the news came out on Tuesday, April 1st, caused many to suggest, sometimes seriously, that the whole story was an unfunny April Fools gag. This comment piece in The Telegraph even goes to far as to argue that an extra couple of apples a day would interfere with our busy schedule of not chewing: “If life is too short to stuff a mushroom, time is certainly too tight to masticate turnips, tomatoes and tangerines by the ton. No one I know chews these days. We’re too busy. “

Is it unrealistic, though, to eat seven portions of fruit and veg a day? What about in one meal? Or a single dish? I decided to find out by making a salad containing the entire 7 recommended daily portions of fruit and veg.

Like most people, I struggle to ensure that I eat five portions of fruit and veg every day. As you’ll have seen, our diet seems reasonably balanced and not lacking in vegetable content, but probably not up to the NHS’ recommended level, let alone that of these new findings. Mostly this is because I get most of my fruit and veg for the main evening meal rather than during the day. I drink a lot of juice, but the UCL survey suggests that this is one of the least effective ways to get the goodness out of fruit and veg, only ahead of canned fruit, which, given the sugar content, could actually do more harm than good. Because of this, I wanted to see if it was possible to pack all those 7 portions into just one dish, a seven a day salad.

7 a dayBut just how much is a portion of fruit or vegetables? Well, the idea is essentially to be a single fruit when it comes to something of a medium size like an apple or larger tomato, or a handful when it comes to something smaller like berries or cherry tomatoes. In order to standardise measurements, the suggestion is that a “portion” is around 80g in weight. So, my salad would need to contain 560g of fruit and veg each (or over 1kg between the two of us).

Beyond simply the amount of fruit and veg you should be eating, there is also further advice, such as the suggestion that vegetables provide more benefits than fruit, raw or unprocessed vegetables are better than cooked or frozen ones, and the greater variety of vegetables used the better, hence the suggestion that it is healthiest to eat as many different colours of vegetables as possible (also avoiding a meal that looks an unappetising shade of brownish-yellow!).

I decided, therefore, to make a rainbow salad with one portion of each of seven different fruits and vegetables of different colours: carrot, tomato, beetroot, red onion, red pepper, white cabbage, and apples (along with a good sized handful of chopped up parsley to add an extra amount of green). You can see in the picture above just how much two portions of each of those vegetables made up, meaning that this was going to have to be a fairly substantial salad.

SaladI added some pieces of chicken and bacon (just to make sure we weren’t just eating an enormous pile of vegetables). Although the research suggested raw vegetables are healthier, I softened and fried the onions and cabbage together in the fat from the chicken and bacon, before mixing the whole salad up with some honey, mustard and lemon (another fruit) dressing.

Was it any good? Well, sort of. It’s perfectly reasonable to make a salad with a variety of ingredients of different types, flavours and colours, but to get a full 560g of that all together on the plate at once is a lot of food. It wasn’t bad, but I can’t see myself keeping up with eating this every day.

At the end of the day, getting more vegetables in your diet will always be a good thing, but consistently ensuring that you eat an OK amount every day is probably going to be better than filling your plate with a heap of veg like this on one day and not bothering afterwards. That is why the government is unlikely to change its advice from 5 a day to 7, because 5 sets a realistic target people might live up to in the long term and the long term is really all that matters in diet and health terms.

PlumProfessor Plum in the Dining Room: It turns out seven portions of veg (plus a small amount of protein) is too much for an average meal. It was a nice salad, if a little random. To be honest, we don’t always get five a day normally – dinner normally has three or four portions in, but sandwich shop lunches are usually lacking, as is toast and tea for breakfast. As the announcement was no doubt intended to, it’s prompted me to try harder to get five a day.

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