Britons failing to get their recommended amout of fruit and veg each day (and what to do about it)

I read today that we Britons are failing to eat the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables each according. According marketing organisation TNS just 12 percent of people in the UK are getting their recommended quota. Plus, another 12 percent, apparently, eats no fruit and veg at all. On average, we’re only getting half the recommended amount of fruit and veg down our necks each day.

Fruit and vegetables contain (other than water) mainly carbohydrate. I rate the carbohydrate found here much more highly than the carb derived from starchy carbs such as bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals for two main reasons. Firstly, calorie for calorie, fruit and vegetables (other than the potato) offer more in the way of nutrients. And secondly, they tend not to cause the sort of blood sugar and insulin disruption typical with the starchy carbs. Through their ability to cause surges in insulin, starchy carbs can predispose to all manner of ills including weight gain (particularly around the middle) and type 2 diabetes. This coupled with their not-so-very nutritious nature means that eating a glut of them in the diet can cause us to be overweight and malnourished ” all at the same time.

For these reasons, I tend to recommend that if someone if looking to consume carbohydrate, they look less to starchy fstaples and more to fruit and vegetables, though pulses (beans and lentils) are another option to bear in mind too. Concentrating on these sources of carbohydrate helps ensure improved health and wellbeing through more stable blood sugar levels, lower levels of insulin, and improved nutritional status overall.

Below, I have pasted a couple of previously published pieces which explore some techniques for getting more fruit and veg into the diet. The first is aimed at adults, while the second is geared towards children (and picky ones at that). One other thing worth bearing in mind is that studies have found that eating vegetables with oil (e.g oil-based salad dressing on salad) can improve the absorption of certain nutrients contained within them. However, those with busy may find themselves not uncommonly run low in or out of fresh vegetables. I recommend keeping a store of frozen vegetables (e.g. spinach, broccoli) for the sake of convenience. Another advantage of frozen vegetables is that there is usually little or no waste (which is something that is more of a problem with fresh vegetables that may go off before we get to eat them).

How to easily get the recommended 5 portions of fruit and veg each day – 2 March 2003

A major nutritional dictum over the last few years has been the importance of getting five portions of fruit and vegetables past our lips every day. Despite the consistency of this message, the latest statistics show that only one in seven of us make the mark in this respect. Recently, the Government has had a crack at pushing this theme once again. However, despite such laudable efforts, many of us still seem utterly confused about what we need to do to get their daily dose of plant-based produce. This situation is not helped by the fact that many individuals confess to being quite daunted by this five-a-day notion, as for them it conjures up images of munching through mounds of rather unappealing salad.

Actually, a close look at the official guidelines reveals that a standard portion of fruit of veg weighs in at a modest 80 g. While this equates to a large bowlful of salad leaves, it is also commensurate with perhaps less intimidating vegetable servings such as a couple of spears of broccoli, a medium-sized carrot or tomato, a two-inch section of cucumber, half a courgette or a handful of mange tout. Three tablespoons of kidney beans, lentils or chick peas represent a portion of vegetables too. Baked beans, however, do not count, and neither do canned tomato soup or spaghetti hoops. Last year, Heinz cooked up a marketing campaign designed to convince us that their tinned foods loaded with salt and refined sugar count towards our fruit and vegetable quota. I am glad to say the Government appears to have seen through the rather cynical ploy, and have barred this sort of canned fare from the recommended list.

As far a fruit goes, we can get a whole portion’s worth from just a single banana, pear, apple or orange. Other options are a brace of more modestly-sized fruits such as plums, tangerines, clementines or kiwi fruits, or a good handful of cherries or grapes. Drinking a small glass (150 ml) of fruit juice or smoothie is another way of giving the body a dose of fruit, though the Government’s advice is that this cannot count for more than one portion per day, however much is drunk. Personally, I am doubtful that overly-processed and high heat-treated cartoned fruit juice has much in the way of health-giving properties, and would advise sticking to freshly squeezed juices and smoothies not made from concentrate.

So, what practical options exist for those keen to meet their five-a-day target? My suggestion would be to start the day with a piece or two of fruit, whatever else is eaten at this time. Failing that, some freshly squeezed fruit juice or quality smoothie will do. Eating a piece of fruit in mid morning and mid afternoon is another useful tactic. While we have generally been put off eating between meals, snacking on healthy foods actually seems to have several potential benefits including improved weight control. An alternative to fruit as a snack is raw veg. Some chopped-up carrots, cucumber or celery, perhaps dipped into hummus (don’t forget, chick peas count too) can make a very healthy stop-gap while feeding the kids or on returning home from work. A half-decent serving of salad or cooked vegetables at dinner will easily ring up the five recommended portions for the day. With a bit of practical know-how, getting our daily dose of fruit and veg needn’t be hard to swallow at all.

Why healthy diets for children can’t be had from a tin – 12 May 2002

Pretty much every parent will be keen to ensure their little ones eat a healthy, balanced diet. A recent campaign by the food company Heinz may give the impression that this task has suddenly got a whole lot easier. According to Heinz, we can now count many of its canned foods as fresh produce. Half a tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce, we are told, equates to a full serving of fruit or veg. And just half a can of tomato soup, apparently, gives us two whole servings. Quite how Heinz has managed to draw such comparisons is beyond me. Many nutritionally beneficial elements such as fibre and certain vitamins can be lost in the processing of canned foods. Plus, such cupboard staples are laced with quite generous quantities of salt and refined sugar; two things that it makes sense to minimise in the diet. Heinz may try to give some of their processed foods a healthy sheen, but my advice is; don’t buy it.

While I think we can be pretty relaxed about giving our children the occasional serving of food from a tin, I would be very wary about relying on such foods to meet a child’s nutritional needs. To get maximum nutritional value from fruit and veg, these are best eaten in as unadulterated and untainted a form as possible. The problem is, some children seem to have an almost pathological aversion to fresh produce, which is where some creative meal planning can come in handy.

As a general rule, playing to a child’s strengths is a good tactic. Even if a child likes only a limited number of fruits or vegetables these should be provided in quantity. For instance, if a child is keen on fruit but not vegetables, keeping a well-stocked fruit bowl may reap more dividends than force-feeding him with spinach and broccoli. Likewise, if a child likes some vegetables but not others, giving him those he likes and not making an issue of his pet hates is a good long term strategy. It’s worth bearing in mind that most children go through picky-eating phases, but these very rarely persist for too long. Besides, attempting to ply a child with unwanted foods can reinforce the problem and encourage the development of some serious mental barriers to specific foods.

One useful trick for getting a child to eat more fruit and veg is disguise. For instance, a child who won’t eat fresh fruit may nonetheless be very happy to drink blended fruit in the form of a smoothie. Zizzing up a banana and with some berries (e.g. strawberries, raspberries, blueberries) with a little water and ice makes a tasty and nutritious drink for children of practically all ages. An added dollop or two of yoghurt can often give added appeal too.

Blending can also be a useful tactic for getting more vegetables into a child too. For instance, pureeing some carrots for addition into a pasta sauce can add real nutritional value to a meal without registering a blip on a child’s food radar. Some children are keener on raw vegetables, particularly when supplied with a favourite dip. Many kids find raw carrots, celery or cucumber dipped into hummus or guacamole a surprisingly attractive proposition.

Parents often find that the more they involve their child in food preparation the more likely they are to eat that foods. Even small children can be encouraged to wash fruit and vegetables, or add them to a pot or blender. And one final thing; studies show that parents who eat plenty of fruit and veg are more likely to have children who do the same, and generally require little in the way of coercion to do so. As far as healthy eating goes, as with most things in life, it helps to lead by example.

4 Responses to Britons failing to get their recommended amout of fruit and veg each day (and what to do about it)

  1. Anna 15 September 2008 at 9:40 pm #

    The best way to get kids to eat veggies (beside setting a good example yourself ) is to have already prepared crudités ready in the fridge for the kids when they come looking for something to eat while you are preparing dinner. It will satisfy their urge to nosh without ruining their appetite.

    Most importantly, get the starchy, sugary snacks *out of the house*, because kids will always hold out for sugar and starch if they know it’s around (so will indulgent parents). That will save money on unnecessary groceries, too. It might seem like it at first, but kids won’t whine endlessly for crackers and chips/crisps, and cookies/biscuits that aren’t there. And parents can resist giving in to childish demands if they aren’t in the cupboard. It takes some time to take effect, but believe me, it is very effective, far more effect than trying to ration out the snacks and push the veggies. Better for the parents’ waistline, too :-).

  2. Paul Anderson 22 September 2008 at 3:01 pm #

    Dr Briffa,

    I would like to play devil’s advocate here and ask what actual proof exists to support the recommendation too consume 5 portions of fruit and veg a day.

    I am always a little suspicious of recommendatioins that are presmumably produced via committee. For example cholesterol guidelines, the objective of taking 10,000 steps a day, drinking 2 litres of water, etc.

    I would be interested to kow what scientific evidence there is to support the recommendation to consume 5 portions of fruit and veg: why was that figure chosed over say 3, 4 or 6 or 7.

    I also think its a mistake to group fruit and vegetables together. Low GI vegetables are altogether different from today’s modern fruits.

    Furthermore within the respectvie categories there are great variations in the quality of the foods, for example between cruciferous vegetables and beets, and say a banana and berries.

    My own suspicion is that the need for nutirents contained in fruit and veg rises the more processed and High GI/GL food one consumes. It seems that in many societies that consume traditional diets high in fat and low in carb the need for vitamin C, for example can be met from the traces found in meats, especially organ meats, and the small amouts of seasonal veg consumed. Whereas in societies eating a modern high carb diet in conjunction with a high consumption of vegetable and trans fats, the body seems to need far more vitamin C and certain other vitamins.

    I am also curious as to where nuts fit in to the overall picture – walnuts, almonds, macademi nuts for example – could they be legitimately substituted for portions of fruit and veg.

    Another food I think that is underated are the mushroom family – a good source of selenium, niacin and folate.

    From what I understand about food the body can cope with shortages of most foods but it requires adequate amounts of the essential amino acids and essenial fats. I think maybe the authorities might be better off remiding people of the needs to eat complete sources of proteins at each meal and recommending consumption omega 3 – either in the form of oil fish or fish oil.

    I am not suggesting that consumption of fruit and veg is unhealthy – although I don’t necessarily think that all fruits deserve their healthy status. Some modern fruits are relative high in sugars and fructose.

    Perhaps a better recommendeation would be to eat plenty low of low GI veg on a regular basis and to eat fruits in season in and in moderation. I would try to incorporate other foods such as nuts, etc, in to a general recommendation.

    With regard to vitamins I feel there should be greater emphasis on fat soluable vitamins, which for many will be in short supply when following the high carb low fat (saturated in particular) standard deitary advice.

    I just feel that the 5 portions of fruit and veg advice isn’t subject to sufficient scrutiny and isn’t based upon sound science – or at least, is subject to critical assessment. Not all fruit and vegetables are equal.


  3. Hilda 22 September 2008 at 10:58 pm #

    Many people think that we should eat far than 5 portions of fruit and veg but 5 is easily manageable for most people. IN fact the bulk of our diet should be vegs less so fruit and the coloured pigments in these -black, blue , orange etc contain antioxidants necessary to prevent most degenerative diseases and different vegs contain different ones. These work in synergy with each other.
    A good way to get vegs into us in greater variety is to make soup as lots of vegs such as carrots, broccoli, garlic, onions, swede, beetroot, cabbage etc can be combined and blended with an organic stock cube or real stock. Its easy and saves having lots of different pots on the hob at once.

  4. Paul Anderson 23 September 2008 at 7:33 am #


    What exactly is the meaning of the phrase “most people think” we should far more than 5 portions of fruit and veg. That’s not quite the same thing as evidence that eating loads of fruit and veg is healthy and necessary. There is some evidence to the contrary.

    Most people think that eating a low fat diet is healthy, that saturated fat and cholesterol are dangerous and most people thought that the earth was flat. Indeed suggesting somethig different would have you treated as a heretic.

    I personally would like to see some conclusive research showing that eating plenty of fruit and veg (or just veg) leads to an improved quality of life and increased longevity. I am not sure that definitive proof exists.

    I also take the antoxidant issue with a pinch of salt.

    Gary Taubes doesn’t seem to have come across any evidence that its vital that the bulk of the diet is made up of fruit and veg, or even mainly vegetables.

    I do believe its unwise to accept the prevailing current orthodoxy without question. Its wasn’t so long ago that margarine was heavily promoted as a healthy food when in fact the fats are far less healthy than butter – particularly so when tarns fats are used. You don’t tend to see margarine promoted these days as being rich in healthy polyunsaturated fats – maybe dye to the link with cancer.


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