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Everybody knows (or at least should know) that eating fruits and vegetables is good for you; however, most people underestimate their beneficial effects. A new research has shown that eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day reduces your risk of death at any point in time by 42 percent compared to eating less than one portion.

This comprehensive study was the first to link fruit and vegetable consumption with all-cause, cancer and heart disease deaths in a nationally-representative population, as well as quantify the benefits per portion. Scientists used the Health Survey for England to study the eating habits of 65,226 people representative of the English population over a period of 12 years, from 2001 and 2013.

They results showed that compared to eating 1 or less portions of fruit and vegetable per day the risk of death by any cause is reduced by 14% by eating one to three portions, 29% for three to five portions, 36% for five to seven portions and 42% for seven or more (the effect started to become negligible after seven portions). A portion (more commonly called a “serving” in the US) is usually around 80g – which is about an apple, or a carrot, or say two cups of spinach. You also don’t have to split them into 7 different times, you could split them into 2 or 3 or 4 meals.

The main argument against this kind of study is also has to compensate for other factors; researchers compensated for participants sex, age, cigarette smoking, social class, Body Mass Index, education, physical activity and alcohol intake – but there is always a little debate with the parameters used to compensate these factors.

The study, which was published in Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, found that fresh vegetables had the biggest effect, and with each daily portion reducing overall risk of death by 16%. Salad contributed to a 13% risk reduction per portion, while fruit had a smaller, but still considerable contribution of 4% (however, this may be caused by canned/frozen fruits, read below for more details).

“We all know that eating fruit and vegetables is healthy, but the size of the effect is staggering,” says Dr Oyinlola Oyebode of UCL’s Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, lead author of the study. “The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die at any age. Vegetables have a larger effect than fruit, but fruit still makes a real difference. If you’re happy to snack on carrots or other vegetables, then that is a great choice but if you fancy something sweeter, a banana or any fruit will also do you good.”

This fits in really well with the Australian recommendations – their ‘Go for 2 + 5’ recommends eating two portions of fruits and five portions of vegetables each day. The UK department of Health recommends ‘5 a day’, while ‘Fruit and Veggies — More Matters’ is the key message in the USA. However, most of Europe typically eats more fruits and vegetables than both of these countries.

“Our study shows that people following Australia’s ‘Go for 2 + 5’ advice will reap huge health benefits,” says Dr Oyebode. “However, people shouldn’t feel daunted by a big target like seven. Whatever your starting point, it is always worth eating more fruit and vegetables. In our study even those eating one to three portions had a significantly lower risk than those eating less than one”

The takeaway message here is not to focus on a specific number; what you should focus on is eating more vegetables and fruits, especially fresh ones. The survey did not distinguish between canned and frozen fruit, and this is also an issue:

“Most canned fruit contains high sugar levels and cheaper varieties are packed in syrup rather than fruit juice,” explains Dr Oyebode. “The negative health impacts of the sugar may well outweigh any benefits. Another possibility is that there are confounding factors that we could not control for, such as poor access to fresh groceries among people who have pre-existing health conditions, hectic lifestyles or who live in deprived areas.”

If they would consider only fresh fruit, the 4% figure would almost certainly go up.

Journal Reference:

  1. Oyinlola Oyebode, Vanessa Gordon-Dseagu, Alice Walker, Jennifer S Mindell.Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England dataJ Epidemiol Community Health, 31 March 2014 DOI: 10.1136/jech-2013-203500

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