Five a Day – Essential Advice or Empty Slogan?

In recent years, the five a day campaign has come under quite some flack. We see headlines claiming that it doesn’t go far enough, others saying it’s altogether unnecessary and even worse – many saying it has been hijacked by big food companies to mislead consumers. With so much confusion, I wanted to unpack the 5 a day message. Where does it come from, should we be listening and most importantly – what on earth should we all be eating?!

Just A Marketing Slogan?

The UK’s 5 a Day message evolved from a slogan dreamed up in the 80s in California and adopted by the UK Government in 2003. The Department of Health took the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of a minimum of 400g of fresh fruit & vegetables per day and chopped it up into chunks they thought the British Public would be able to manage. Five 80g portions of fruits & veggies a day – the same number of fingers that you have. Easy.

Not so easy, it seems.

Less than 30% of adults manage to do it1 – and that’s what they say they eat, which for anyone who has ever wondered where that last cookie went can attest – may not be what they actually eat!

While only a limited group of the population seem to be listening, there’s clearly one group of people that have definitely got the message: marketing executives for big food companies.

Stroll through the supermarket and you’ll see various “five a day” logos on products from soups to Heinz Pasta Hoops. That’s right, pasta hoops in sugary tomato sauce (sugar is the fourth ingredient) are apparently one of your five a day – but only “when eaten as part of a balanced diet”.

Confused? Me too. 

Five, Seven, 10 a Day – The Science

While the majority of the country say they are struggling to get to five a day, others are calling for the number to be increased, refined and updated.

There’s a bit of science to cover here.

A 2017 Meta-Study (an aggregate of 95 studies) concluded that eating 800g of fruit & veg a day reduced the risk of heart disease by 25% and stroke by 33%. The risk of cancer dropped too, by 13%, but the benefits stopped increasing at 600g of fruit & veg in this case. So that’s 600-800g, or 7.5 – 10 portions per day in exchange, overall, for a drop in all cause mortality of 31%.2

Right, so 10 a day then… wow.

Well, a 2020 study showed that increasing your consumption of Fruit & Veg by just one 66g serving (yes, I know, that’s different to before) per day can decrease your risk of type two diabetes by 25% and eating 500g+ can reduce it over 50%. The study called for the five a day message to be dropped in favour of “just one more portion”.3

OK – so just a bit more than what I had yesterday?

Maybe, except just this month, research from Harvard University which took data from over 2 million participants concluded that the benefits max out at around 5 portions of fruit & veg a day, but that there’s an optimal combination – 2 Fruit & 3 Veggies a day.4

Well, this is confusing.

So What Should I Eat Tomorrow?

I know it seems confusing, but that’s how science works. Folks test, and conclude, then retest & conclude and so we learn, but one thing is absolutely clear. We need to load up on fruit & veg,

The Global Burden of Disease Study – an incredible coordinated effort of over 500 researchers from around the world – identified a poor diet as a cause of 1 in 5 deaths.5 It’s also clear that supplements don’t cut it – we need real fruit & veg to get the good stuff – and the research on gut health indicates that diversity is as essential as quantity to maintain equilibrium in the microbiome.

So what should I be eating? Well, as Michael Pollan put it; “Eat Food. Not too Much. Mainly Plants.”

If you like numbers, here’s the two two that we aim for: 7 a day and 30 a week. Why Seven? Because on the days you fail you’ll still hit your 5. Why 30? Because it’s exciting, delicious & supports balance in your gut – something we’ll talk more about in the future (and have in the past – head to the Journal!).

The key message to take from the science is this: five a day isn’t a bad message, why? Because fruit & veg are scientifically proven to help people live longer, healthier lives. Just remember that the real slogan was at least five a day. So whether it’s five, or seven, or ten a day – load up on plants to feel your best for as long as we’re here.

 

References

1. According to the NHS Health Survey for England, 2018 – the same question was not asked in the 2019 survey.

2. Aune et al, “Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality-a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies” International Journal of Epidemiology, 2017

3. Zheng et al, “Association of plasma biomarkers of fruit and vegetable intake with incident type 2 diabetes: EPIC-InterAct case-cohort study in eight European countries”, British Medical Journal 2020

4. Wang et al, “Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies of US Men and Women and a Meta-Analysis of 26 Cohort Studies”, Circulation 2021

5. Global Burden of Disease Study, The Lancet 2017

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