Earlier this year, a group of scientists upped the recommended daily fruit and veg target from five servings to eight after a study found going higher offered health-protective benefits.
If you’re health-savvy you’ll know this is still nowhere near enough.
Yet around the same time, The Daily Mail published an article in which nutritionist Zoe Harcombe argued that even “five a day” is overdoing it.
Yes – you did read that right!
Although this may sound like an extreme view, the notion that the benefits of fruits and veggies have been exaggerated gets regular media coverage. This particular article goes into more detail on the topic than most, so I decided to post a few excerpts from it as they make a good vehicle for some info on just how essential fruits and veggies are. I actually decided to do this back in January, but this fell into a hard-drive black hole from which it has only just re-emerged. So without further ado…
“For more than two years I’ve known that the ‘five-a-day’ mantra we’re all so familiar with is nothing but a fairytale.”
By the NHS’s definition, a portion of fruit or veg is defined as a mere 80g, which equates to a medium apple, tomato or carrot, or three tablespoons of berries or cooked veg. And it is indeed nothing short of a fairytale to think that we can achieve optimal health consuming a measly 400g a day of fruit and veg! It is just nowhere near enough, and nor is the 640g represented by the eight-a-day recommendation – though that is at least a step in the right direction.
“Of course, they are tasty, colourful additions to any meal. But in terms of health and nutrition, fruit and veg have little to offer.”
“and telling us to eat eight portions a day is compounding one of the worst health fallacies in recent history.”
It is indeed a fallacy, but only because it is such an understatement of the truth.
“Surprised? Many people will be, and no doubt some dieticians and nutritionists will reject my arguments. But science backs me up.”
A mountain of scientific evidence points to the health benefits and disease-protective effects of phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals. And it is impossible to have a discussion about the importance of fruits and veggies in the diet without mentioning these — yet inexplicably this article did not mention them. Phyto means plant – these essential nutrients are found only in plants, not in animal foods, and fruits and vegetables are far and away the best source of them.
“People are convinced that fruit and vegetables are a particularly good source of vitamins and minerals.”
Well, compared to most of the food, or rather “food”, being eaten they are.
“There are 13 vitamins and fruit is good for one of them, vitamin C.”
It is true that other than vitamin C, the vitamin A precursor beta carotene (mainly found in orange, yellow and red fruits) and vitamin E (found in fatty fruits), fruits are not as rich a source of vitamins as you’d think. But they are absolutely loaded with phytonutrients. Much research has already been done into their amazing benefits but this is a science in its infancy, so we’ve only scratched the surface so far.
In the future, phytonutrients will be seen to be as essential as vitamins and minerals – as indeed they already are among those of us who are interested not just in surviving but in thriving. There are thousands of them and for optimum health we need to get as many of them as possible. The only way to do that? Consume copious amounts of fruits and vegetables and get as wide a variety as you can. Be sure to consume all the colours of the rainbow – reds, oranges, yellows, greens, purples and whites – every day if you can.
“Vegetables offer some vitamins — vitamin C and the vegetable form of the fat-soluble vitamins A and vitamin K1 — but your body will be able to absorb these only if you add some fat, such as butter or olive oil. The useful forms of A and K — retinol and K2 respectively — are found only in animal foods. As for minerals, there are 16 and fruit is good for one of them, potassium, which is not a substance we are often short of, as it is found in water.”
Question: If people aren’t getting their carbs from fruits and veggies, where are they getting them? Answer: Either from refined sugar or from grains in some form, also usually refined. Refined carbs aren’t even worth discussing when it comes to nutrition, because the digestion of these foods burns through markedly more nutritients than the negligible amount left in them. So let’s move swiftly on to whole grains. If we compare these to fruits and veggies, they win when it comes to B vitamins, but on just about every nutrient, including thousands of phytonutrients, the fresh stuff is the more nutritious choice.
“Vegetables can be OK for iron and calcium but the vitamins and minerals in animal foods (meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) beat those in fruit and vegetables hands down. There is far more vitamin A in liver than in an apple, for instance.”
If you choose to consume organic meat, fish, eggs and/or dairy products these can be a healthy way to get the few nutrients which are hard to find in plant foods. But these foods are concentrated sources of those nutrients so we only need a little and indeed if we consume more than a little, the negative consequences start to outweigh the positives.
To give just one example of why these are foods to go easy on, manmade chemicals in the environment concentrate up the food chain so we take in a much higher dose of them when we eat a piece of meat or fish than when we eat any fruit or vegetable.
For different reasons, grains (yes, even wholesome whole ones) are also a food that’s best not “overdone”. In excess, grains throw blood sugar off balance and can cause anything from brain fog to out-of-control cravings and weight gain.
Vegetables don’t do any of this, to anyone. We can (and should) consume them in abundance at every meal and they won’t upset our mood or blood sugar, nor cause weight gain. They are our best source of calories, carbohydrates, phytonutrients and most vitamins and minerals. Granted, most of them only contain relatively small quantities of the latter gram for gram, so if we are only consuming a few tablespoons of them a day, then yes, they will leave us deficient. But we won’t be deficient if our quantities are sufficient.
Insider secret: when you consume more vegetables (by volume) than you do any other food, then you start to experience your true potential for health and wellbeing.
“Fruit contains high levels of fructose, or fruit sugar. Among dieticians, fructose is known as ‘the fattening carbohydrate’. It is not metabolised by the body in the same way as glucose, which enters the bloodstream and has a chance to be used for energy before it heads to the liver. Fructose goes straight to the liver and is stored as fat.”
The bulk of the research that has been done into fructose has been done into its synthetic, isolated forms – namely high-fructose corn syrup – not into the natural fructose that fruit delivers, packaged up with water, fibre, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, amino acids, fatty acids and enzymes. When the fructose arrives in the body in this package it inevitably has a very different metabolic and biochemical effect.
That said, although natural fructose does not act in the same way as synthetic fructose, eating too much fruit in one go is not a good idea as it will cause an insulin spike, with all the established health negatives that brings. Personally, I feel best if I limit my fruit intake to no more than 2-3 servings at a time, and no more than 6 in a day, and many people do best on even lower amounts.
“Another argument that is often put forward by dieticians on behalf of fruit and vegetables is that they are ‘a source of antioxidants’. They believe we need to have more antioxidants in our diet to counteract the oxidants that damage the body’s cells, either as a result of normal metabolic processes or as a reaction to environmental chemicals and pollutants. But I would rather concentrate on not putting oxidants such as sugar, processed food, cigarette smoke or chemicals into my body.”
I think we can all agree those are wise steps and that prevention is better than cure. But we live in a world with polluted air, water and soil and also electromagnetic pollution. And as Ms Harcombe writes, free radicals also occur as the result of normal metabolic processes. So the reality is that even if we strive to live the healthiest lifestyle possible, we’ll still have plenty of free radicals zipping around our bodies.
Free radicals are a leading cause of cell damage, and therefore disease and premature aging. We don’t know exactly what our personal free radical load is on any given day nor how many antioxidants we need to counteract them. But while free radicals are a risk to our health, vegetables and fruits are not, so why wouldn’t we eat them in abundance?
“Besides, fruit has a fraction of the antioxidants of coffee, though you rarely hear dieticians singing coffee’s praises.”
Coffee also contains caffeine, a psychoactive stimulant drug that has been linked with anxiety, panic attacks, adrenal exhaustion, insomnia and high blood pressure. In fruit we get the benefits of antioxidants without such negatives.
“The biggest tragedy of all is the lost opportunity from this misguided five-a-day campaign. If only we had hand-picked the five foodstuffs that are actually most nutritious […] If you ask me, these foodstuffs are liver (good for all vitamins and packed with minerals), sardines (for vitamin D and calcium), eggs (all-round super-food with vitamins A, B, D, E and K, iron, zinc, calcium and more), sunflower seeds (magnesium, vitamin E and zinc) and dark-green vegetables such as broccoli or spinach (for vitamins C, K and iron).”
The average person in the UK gets more calories from empty carbs – namely refined white sugar and white flour in various guises – than from anything else. So agreed — as the average British diet features so little in the way of nutrient-dense foods, adding in these foods would be a vast improvement for many.
“Add milk (good for calcium, vitamins A and D),”
For anyone who doesn’t know why pasteurised milk is a food that’s best avoided, Robert Cohen’s Not Milk website is a good place to start.
“porridge oats (magnesium, zinc and B vitamins) and cocoa powder (magnesium and iron) and, hey presto, you’re provided with the full quota of every vitamin and mineral our bodies need.”
Again, what about phytonutrients? Only dark-green vegetables (broccoli and spinach) are mentioned, so what about the natural health-protective chemicals found in red, yellow, orange, purple and white plant foods?
“In a long-awaited Public Health White Paper late last year, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said that only three in ten adults eat the recommended five-a-day. Later in the same document, he asks how can we improve the use of evidence in public health. My suggestion is that he gets his own facts on five-a-day straight and saves himself the bother of worrying about fruit and veg. The nation — and his budget — would thank him for it.”
If over two-thirds of us are not even getting five portions of fruit and veg a day we can expect to see overflowing hospital wards, and higher than ever rates of chronic disease, including depression and other forms of mental illness. But hold on… That is exactly what we are seeing.
The solution? A return to nutrient-dense whole foods with vegetables at the centre of the diet, where they belong.