Earlier this year researchers at Imperial College London said that we need to be eating ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day (approx. 800g) to significantly help cut the risk of early death from heart disease, strokes and cancer, but with less than a third of us managing the Department of Health’s suggested 5-a-day, we are a long way off.
Here are my top tips for upping your veg intake.
Why do we need to eat vegetables and fruit?
Fruit and vegetables are full of fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in quantities you you cannot get from other foods. Their wide range of nutrients helps reduce cholesterol and blood pressure; protect DNA from damage; support a healthy immune system; help you maintain a happy weight and they provide fibre which keeps you both full and regular. We should be eating 30g of fibre a day, most of us only manage 18g and so focusing on boosting your intake of plant foods will also help you reach your fibre goal. We now know that eating more fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of getting bowel cancer and other chronic diseases by as much as 33%.
- A portion is 80g which is roughly a small handful of fruit, vegetables or pulses (fresh, frozen or tinned), or 30g if dried. For example an apple, a small banana, seven strawberries, two kiwis, one tinned peach, two broccoli spears, two handfuls of cabbage, three sticks of celery, eight Brussels, five asparagus, seven slices of beetroot, eight small florets of cauliflower or roughtly 3tbsp of pulses (pulses only count as one portion no matter how much you eat).
- It’s worth pointing out that dried fruit can be constipating as it absorbs water from your gut so ideally hydrate overnight in green tea or rooibos.
- You can’t count the same food twice so variety is really key, this infographic is fab www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/what-counts-five-day
For busy households my tip is to spend an hour each Sunday roasting and steaming vegetables, preparing a tub of crudité and making a large batch of vegetable soup:
- Roasted vegetables such as aubergine, courgette, red onion, garlic, peppers, leeks, mushrooms, tomatoes, squash and beetroot can be eaten in a lunchtime salad or reheated gently and enjoyed alongside baked salmon or chicken.
- Steamed vegetables are another handy option to keep in the fridge and can be added to a bed of salad leaves or chopped into a quick omelette.
- A large batch of vegetable soup is great to have to hand and if time is short you can have a quick bowlful alongside your meal and still hit your daily veg intake.
- A tub of crudité in the fridge (carrot sticks, sliced pepper, radishes, broccoli and cauli florets, fennel sticks, cherry tomatoes, cucumber…) means you always have ready to go vegetables to eat with any meal.
- I encourage clients to see breakfast as another meal, rather than a time to eat sweeter foods and cereals. I know this can be a big shift for some but altering your mind-set can be life changing. Mashed avocado with toasted seeds or crudité with almond butter are two great options that are super quick to pull together.
- Top scrambled eggs with chopped cherry tomatoes, coriander, spring onion and chilli or enjoy an omelette with peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes.
- Smoothies can be a great breakfast option, for example – frozen berries, frozen banana, ½ avocado, frozen spinach, a few cashews or protein powder, ground flaxseeds and almond/cow’s milk. It is true that blending changes the fibre structure and you may not be fully benefitting from the ingredients but smoothies are still good to include.
- Try replacing baked potatoes with baked sweet potatoes (white potatoes do not count).
- Add frozen veggies to cooked rice, shop bought soups and processed meals to elevate their nutrient status.
- Load veggies into your ragu sauce. I add the following to a 500g pack of mince: 4 peppers, 4 carrots, 4 red onions, a punnet of mushrooms, 2 tins of tomatoes, half a head of celery, and lots of garlic, smoked paprika, turmeric and rosemary. If you food process (or finely chop) thevegetables they aren’t overly visible in the sauce. You can also add a pouch of puy lentils for an extra fibre boost.
- For children, offer them a bowel of chopped fruit to eat whilst you are getting breakfast ready.
- Top a yoghurt or fruit pot with pomegranate seeds, chopped kiwi or goji berries.
- Offer children a dipping sauce for their veggies – homous, passata, guacamole, or nut butter thinned with a little water.
- Give children a small bowl of different veggies with their meals (frozen peas, carrot and pepper sticks, cucumber chunks, cherry tomatoes…).
- Make fruit kebabs as a pudding option (strawberries, grapes, pineapple, kiwi, pineapple and banana work well).
- Try adding grated apple or pear to porridge whilst it is cooking and top with banana and frozen berries – these are great at cooling it down.
- Use frozen veg for convenience (frozen mixed veg, peas, spinach and bananas are always in my freezer).
An Example Day
- Breakfast – half an avocado on a slice of toast, topped with toasted seeds and cherry tomatoes (x7). Strawberries (x7).
- Lunch – Red Lentil Dahl (homemade or shop bought; min 3tbsp) with added peas (3 tbsp) and frozen spinach (2 blocks). Figs (x2).
- Dinner – Chicken Stir fry with pak choi (3 tbsp), kale (4 tbsp), onion (half).
My final comment is to not get bogged down in weighing and counting out what you are eating but more to focus on eating a variety of fruit and vegetables, different ones with each meal so that you get the widest exposure to different nutrients. Thinking of a portion size in terms of a small handful or 3 heaped tablespoons can simplify things. I like clients to aim for 8 veg a day and an optional two portions of fruit if they wish. This takes time and it is important to build up gradually so that your body can adjust to the increased levels of fibre. Do try and give special attention to breakfast because once you are including vegetables with this meal the rest of the day is set-up and you’ll be hitting your target before you know it.
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’ by D. Aune et al is published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.