Recent research has revealed that eating more fruit and veg can cut the risk of dying prematurely by an incredible 42%. As a result, dieticians are now urging us to eat seven portions a day – up from the previously recommended five. This week Nikki Edwards looks at what counts as a portion and weighs up the benefits of raw versus cooked and fresh versus frozen.
It can come as no surprise that eating plenty of fruit and vegetables will make us live longer.
Packed full of nutrients, vitamins and minerals, they also contain fibre, are low in calories, contain no cholesterol and are as delicious as they are nutritious.
New studies have also shown that the more we eat, the less risk we have of dying from cancer or a heart condition.
My clean, lean and protein programme is top-heavy on fruit and vegetables for this very reason.
But I often get asked what counts as a portion and whether some produce is healthier than others.
Here are some of the nation’s favourite fruits with details of how much constitutes a portion and what the health benefits are:
- Blueberries – two handfuls. Often described as a superfood, blueberries have high levels of antioxidants. Some claim they help protect against heart disease and cancer, as well as improve memory function
- Grapes – 16 grapes. These are sugary which is a downside but if you are going to choose to eat grapes as one of your 7-a-day choose red over green. Red or black grapes contain more resveratrol which is linked to a lower risk of cancer and is thought to boost immune systems.
- Raisins – 30g. Full of energy and contain the same nutrients as grapes but be careful not to eat too many – they are full of sugar – a quarter more than in an equal portion of grapes.
- Banana – one small banana. These are a great source of potassium but are also sugary. These are best eaten in the morning or after exercise.
- Apple – one medium-sized fruit. Packed full of vitamins and minerals but eat it with the skin on for extra fibre.
- Clementines – two. Bursting with vitamin C these are a real boost to your diet.
- Orange juice – one small glass. The official advice is to only consume one glass a day because the sugar content is so high. If I were you, I would drink water and choose to eat a piece of fruit instead.
- Tomato – one medium or seven cherry tomatoes. This is a fruit rather than a vegetable and is rich in nutrients and vitamin C.
- Fruit smoothie – one small glass (150ml). Blending fruit into a drink breaks down the fibre so your body absorbs more of the nutrients.
Here are some of the nation’s favourite vegetables – the correct portion size and details on their health benefits:
- Onion – one medium. Contains compounds that lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Lettuce – a cereal bowlful. Iceberg is the least nutritious because it is made up of mostly water. The best varieties are romaine, which is rich in vitamin A or rocket which is packed full of minerals.
- Potatoes – Believe it or not, these do not count as one of your 7-a-day because they are classified as a starch or carbohydrate. Sweet potato on the other hand does. One sweet potato constitutes one portion and it is rich in antioxidants.
- Peas – three heaped tablespoons. Full of nutrients whether fresh or frozen.
- Peppers – half a pepper. Green is the lowest in calories but red is the best for you because it contains a cancer-preventing nutrient called lycopene.
- Broccoli – 80g. This is rich in vitamin C and even better raw than cooked.
- Cucumber – quarter of a cucumber. This is 90% water so hasn’t got as much nutritional value as you might think.
- Carrot – three tablespoons. Packed with vitamins C and A.
- Asparagus – seven spears. A good source of vitamins A, C, E and K and chromium, an important mineral for moving sugar from the blood into cells.
And that is not all…
There are also some processed foods which count towards your 7-a-day. For example, a packet of vegetable crisps can be included – although I would advise you eat these sparingly because they are full of salt and fat. Baked beans on the other hand, contain a lot of good nutrients and the beans count as one portion and the tomato sauce they are cooked in counts as a second. Chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, hummus and guacamole are also included, as is some tinned fruit. And if you can find ice lollies made with 100% fruit juice this is equivalent to one glass of juice.
Tinned, frozen or fresh?
There have been dozens of studies which suggest that tinned and frozen foods are just as good for us as fresh.
Now fresh fruits and vegetables are completely natural and have the highest quantities of vitamins and minerals when first picked. People also tend to prefer the taste and texture of fresh produce.
But fresh fruits and vegetables lose nutrients from the moment they are picked until they are eaten and storing fresh produce is also very difficult if they are of a variety that will perish quickly.
If a fruit or vegetable is canned or frozen soon after picking then they can actually contain higher levels of nutrients than fresh fruit and vegetables brought from a grocery store. They are also very convenient because they are available throughout the year regardless of the season. Canned produce will last for many months or years without the need for refrigeration.
Be wary of some tinned products though and check the labeling. The nutritional value of the fruit and vegetable they contain should be exactly the same as fresh but sometimes they are very high in sodium or sugar used to preserve them.
Some canned fruits have also added sugar or syrup which can lessen the health benefits.
I would opt for frozen over canned if I couldn’t get fresh.
To cook or not to cook?
Eating your fruit and vegetables raw is sometimes the healthier option. After all, some vitamins are sensitive to heat. Cooking tomatoes for just two minutes for example decreases their vitamin C content by 10%.
Having said this there are some vegetables which offer useful health benefits when they’re cooked including carrots and asparagus. Cooking makes it easier for our bodies to benefit from some of their protective antioxidants, specifically ferulic acid from asparagus, and beta-carotene, which we convert to vitamin A, from carrots.
Other veg – including broccoli and watercress – is more beneficial eaten raw.
When these are heated an important enzyme is damaged, which means the potency of helpful anti-cancer compounds called glucosinolates, is reduced.
It is easy to panic about the 7-a-day message and worry about whether you are getting enough but actually there are mixed messages around the world about this issue.
The Danish are advised to eat six a day, while their neighbours in Sweden are told: “Fruit and vegetables every time you eat.” Hungarians are advised to eat just three portions daily, while the Dutch are told: “Two portions, twice a day.”
My programme advocates eating as much fruit and veg as you like, a moderate amount of protein and a small amount of carbohydrate so the idea is to fill yourself full of the foods which offer your body the most in terms of nutrition.
The bottom line is fruit and vegetables are nature’s way of keeping you healthy and if you ask me, you can’t have too many.