The 5 a day message encourages people to enjoy a variety of different fruits and vegetables as part of a balanced diet. Here we'll look at why fruit and veg are so important to our health, what counts towards your 5 a day and tips for you and your family.
Why is fruit and veg so important?
Eating a good variety of fruit and vegetables is an important element of healthy eating. The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that we eat a minimum of 400g of fruit and veg every day (five portions). This recommended daily amount is thought to help reduce the risk of serious health conditions including stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
In the UK, most of us are lucky enough to be surrounded by a wide variety of foods, catering to all tastes and preferences. The problem for some of us, however, is that within this expanse of food lie some less nutritious options - and sometimes we simply aren't getting the nutrients we need.
In an attempt to reinforce the importance of unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods - the 5 a day campaign was officially backed by the UK Government in 2003. The campaign advised that eating five portions of fruit and veg (in total) every day would help protect against common health problems like heart disease.
So why exactly are fruit and veg so important? Here are some key nutritional benefits:
- They're a fantastic source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium and folate.
- They provide dietary fibre, helping to maintain a healthy digestive system and lower risk of bowel cancer.
- As part of a balanced diet, they can lower the risk of stroke, heart disease and some cancers.
Because different fruit and veg have different nutritional benefits, try to enjoy a variety of types to get the most from your 5 a day.
On top of the health benefits, making your diet more plant-based is great for the planet. Upping your vegetable intake and reducing your meat intake decreases the amount of water and land needed for food production whilst decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Nearly 15% of all human-caused greenhouse gasses are produced by livestock. On average, plant protein takes 11 times less energy to produce than animal protein, meaning that switching from a typical western diet may be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 7%. Read up on the flexitarian approach and the planetary diet to learn more.
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What counts towards your 5 a day?
A common question for those trying to fit five portions of fruit and veg in their diet is: what counts towards the 5 a day guide? The answer is almost all fruits and vegetables. As well as fresh varieties, the following also count towards your recommended daily amount:
- fruit and veg that has been cooked within dishes like soups, stews and pasta
- beans and pulses (however, it's worth noting that they only count as one portion - regardless of how much you eat. This is because, while they are great sources of fibre, they do contain fewer nutrients than other varieties of fruits and vegetables)
- frozen fruit and veg
- canned and tinned fruit/veg (aim to eat those canned in natural juices or water)
- dried fruit
Does fruit/vegetable juice count?
This question has been hotly debated. However, as it stands, 150ml of unsweetened 100% juice counts as a maximum of one portion of your 5 a day. The reason juice has been debated as part of your 5 a day is due to the high levels of sugars that are released when the fruit is juiced.
Because of this, when it comes to fruit juices and smoothies it's recommended that you enjoy those with no added sugar. Try not to rely on these as your main source of fruit and veg. The sugars and acids within fruit juice can also be harmful to your dental health, so it may be worth diluting juices in water to help neutralise them.
Do potatoes count?
As much as we would love to tell you that a portion of chips will go towards your 5 a day - potatoes don't count. Potatoes are a good source of fibre, potassium and B vitamins; however, as they are usually eaten in place of starch (like bread and pasta), they do not count. Similar vegetables that don't count are yams, plantain and cassava.
Sweet potatoes, swedes, turnips and parsnips do count towards your 5 a day - so feel free to stock up on these and remember that even though potatoes don't count, they are still important as part of a balanced diet.
Tips for getting your 5 a day
When people hear that they should be eating five portions of fruit and veg a day, the initial response may be 'how can I do that?'. Luckily there is a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables on offer and plenty of ways they can be incorporated into your diet.
Take a look at the following ideas to help bump up your fruit and veg intake:
- add a portion of mushrooms or tomatoes to scrambled egg on toast
- add some chopped fruit or berries to cereal, porridge or yoghurt
- have a glass of unsweetened fruit juice with your breakfast
- enjoy a smoothie made up of different fruits and veg
- add spinach and pepper to a breakfast omelette
- add some vegetable crudité to your lunch-time meal
- add some salad to your sandwich
- finish off your lunch with a fruit pot
- add some mushrooms and peppers to a stir-fry
- enjoy a salad made up of different vegetables
- add some vegetables to your main meal
- replace potatoes with sweet potatoes
- have a side-salad
- enjoy some fruit for dessert
- add a handful of beans/pulses to soups or sauces
- dried fruit makes for a great on-the-go snack
- enjoy fresh fruit as a snack
- have some carrot/cucumber sticks dipped in hummus
- add cucumber to cream cheese on crackers
- try vegetable crisps
Here are some more suggestions on how to get your 5 a day in from the NHS.
5 a day for children
Getting your children used to eating fruit and vegetables early can help them grow up to enjoy a healthy and balanced diet. Rather than forcing children to eat vegetables or trying to hide them in dishes, try to make the experience a fun one. Let your children pick which fruit and veg they want to try and let them help you prepare them.
By letting them try a variety they will quickly learn that not all fruit and veg tastes the same, allowing them to discover new flavours. If you find they aren't interested, start them off with tinned vegetables (like sweetcorn and peas) and tinned fruit (like pineapple and peach) before moving on to more adventurous varieties. Try to incorporate fruit and veg into every meal and make the presentation fun.
Here a nutritionist shares tips for getting kids to love fruit and veg:
- Be a role model - eat more fruits and vegetables yourself.
- Add a fruit or vegetable as part of every meal or snack. Dip carrot, cucumber, and celery with hummus, salsa or yoghurt-based dips.
- Include one leafy green or yellow vegetable for vitamin A such as spinach, broccoli, squash, green or carrots each day. You could add them to pulao, stuffed chapati or pasta.
- Homemade soups are good for all ages. Serve with croutons or fresh bread.
- Cut back on junk - by having fewer junk foods around you will encourage your children to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products.
Looking for some guidance?
If you're struggling to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables in your diet, you may want to get some support. A nutrition professional can help to identify any missing nutrients in your diet and which fruits/vegetables you would most benefit from adding.
They can offer a sense of accountability as you make changes, offering guidance and support every step of the way. Start your journey today by searching for a nutrition professional.