‘The more the better’: The real message of 5-a-day

(Feature Article written for Communicating Scientific Ideas, UCL module)

The familiar ‘5-a-day’ phrase is being swept aside. We need to be aiming for more, says university research. Seven is good, ten is even better. Or is it? Maybe we should ditch the numbers, and just focus on eating more fruit and veg.

From as young as most of us can remember, we’ve been told to eat our veggies. Maybe we were even warned that pudding was off limits unless we did. Now we’re old enough to decide for ourselves whether or not to have a treat after dinner (regardless of how much broccoli was consumed) the inner rebel can’t help but emerge. Yet, that infamous ’5-a-day’ message is never too far behind us. The grown ups were right – we should be eating more fruit and vegetables.

Launched in 2003, the ‘5-a-day’ initiative has gone down as one of the most recognised health campaigns in UK government history. It’s so engrained in our psyche that we might even make a joke about strawberry laces in the pick n mix as one of our five a day. It’s become the framework in which we think about fruit and vegetables. Yet, just like anything that has been remotely successful, its had its pitfalls. You see, the success of 5-a-day presents something of a paradox. Whilst it has been effective in terms of awareness, few of us seemed to have actually listened.

According to the NHS review of Obesity and Eating Habits, just a quarter of the UK population meet the target. In its fourteen years of existence, this figure does not flatter the 5-a- day campaign. Why then, are we being told to aim higher? Take a second glance at the NHS review and we’re not doing too badly at all. In fact, the average person in the UK is eating 4.3 portions of fruit and vegetables daily. But despite these statistics, it might not be about the numbers after all. In fact, what the research actually says is, the more the better.

From 5 to 10

Currently the World Health Organisation advises that we eat around 400g of fruit and vegetables each day. As one portion is 80g, that translates as approximately five portions in total. But in 2014, research from University College London broke the news that we should be aiming higher. In fact, the team found that those eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables daily reduce their risk of death by 42%.

However, lead author of the study, Dr Oyinlola Oyebode explained that the main outcome of the research was the undeniable health benefits of fruit and veg. She said, “This is just one strand of evidence from medical sciences, but it all suggests that fruit and vegetables are extremely good for us as human beings.” She went on to emphasise, “I definitely took ‘the more the better’ as the conclusion”. Yet, 7-a-day ‘saves lives’ was how it was presented in the news.

Then, earlier this year, along came research from Dr Dagfinn Aune and his team at Imperial College London, with some staggering figures. The study estimated that if everyone ate ten portions of fruit and veg daily, approximately 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide could be prevented each year. Dr Aune said, “In our study we found further benefits with intakes of up to ten servings per day, particularly for coronary heart disease, stroke mortality and, to a large extent, cancer.” These findings can’t be ignored, but must we now fixate our diets on reaching 10- a-day?

What does ‘5-a-day’ mean?

According to the NHS, 90% of the public understand what the ‘5-a-day’ campaign is. Yet, it seems the message has been misrepresented. “It was always supposed to be at least 5- a-day”, said Dr Oyebode. No wonder so many of us were panicked at the recent 10-a-day reveal.

But it’s not our fault. In fact, ’5-a-day’ advice in the UK is slightly misleading. The message over in Australia is ‘Go for 2+5’. Whilst the American government opted for ‘Fruit and Veggies – More Matters’ back in 1991. Though the US may not be the nation to mirror public health policies on, they might be taking the right approach here.

Then there’s the question of what counts towards your 5-a-day (sorry, but strawberry laces do not count). Not even the study participants were required to track this. In fact, they were simply asked to describe in everyday portions the amount of fruit and veg they ate. A bowl of peas here, one banana there… That’s how we think about portions. Rarely do we weigh out 80g of broccoli.

Of course, labelling usually gives us a helping hand with our ‘5-a-day’ portions, but it’s not something to rely on. It’s never going to be there for loose fruit and veg, and it isn’t commonly added to bottom of the range produce. Even when it is there it’s never consistent, either. What is eight cherry tomatoes in Tesco, might be ten in Sainsbury’s. The only way to know, is get the kitchen scales out and weigh them for yourself – not likely to happen. But, if you have a few spare hours to learn all the portion rules, there’s a hefty guide on the government’s website – even less likely to happen.

Not-so Perfect 10

It may be that ten is not the perfect number. What if it was higher? Unfortunately (or fortunately) the research can’t make any conclusions for this, as 800g was the maximum amount that could be measured. Why? Because we physically can’t fit that much into our diets. We only get three meals a day after all, plus a few snacks. So, whilst Dr Aune expected the benefits to increase, he emphasised that 10 portions per day, “is a substantial level of fruit and vegetable intake”.

Plus, fixating on the amount of fruit and vegetables in our diet may steer out attention from other important food groups. Dr Aune was keen to highlight this: “We should remember that there are other plant foods that also are beneficial in reducing the risk of chronic diseases, including whole grains and nuts”.

Though Dr Oyebode and Dr Aune explained that their studies considered a number of factors, including smoking and physical activity, overall diet was not included. Oyebode admitted this may have distorted the conclusion. She said, “Perhaps, the people who are not dying of cancer are not dying because they have a diet that’s low in saturated fat, not because they have a diet that’s high in fruit and vegetables and we have not adjusted for that.” So maybe, when we eat our veggies, it’s more to do with what we’re not eating instead.

Ditch the numbers

There is something quite strange about what is essentially calculating your health. We’re told we should weigh out x amount of fruit and veg, y amount of times, to reduce our risk of death by z percent. Although we’re keen to attach numbers to food, (calories, meals etc.) we just don’t eat mathematically. We eat socially. We eat personally. Eating ‘to be healthy’ is only one factor behind what we do (or don’t) put into our mouths. Forcing veg down to just match up with the numbers is never going to be enough motivation.

Of course, there are times when we savour eating roasted carrots and fresh cucumber. When we feel like we have to, the joyful experience is lost. Snacking on fruit starts to feel like more of a punishment, and that extra side of spinach becomes a chore.

Celebrity Chef and Healthy Eating Campaigner, Jamie Oliver, has spoken out about these new recommendations. He said, “what I can tell you with absolute certainty is that the key to a healthier, happier life is to put veg and fruit smack bang at the centre of your diet.” After all, this is what the research says, too.

The real message, says Dr Oyebode: “However much fruit and veg you’re eating now, try to eat a bit more”. There’s no denying that fruit and vegetables play an enormous part in a healthy, happy life but calculating their part may have the reverse effect.

Do you think eating ten portions of fruit and vegetables everyday is realistic? Find out what happened when I tried it for myself.


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