We investigate what it is, where it came from and why we need it…

Of all the modern health mantras (drink eight glasses of water a day, eat oily fish three times a week, cut down on alcohol, eat more fibre), getting your five-a-day is the one that has really stuck. Ask anyone even vaguely interested in their health how many portions of fruit and vegetables you’re supposed to eat, and they’ll inevitably trot out the well-worn ‘five-a-day’. But, why do we need five portions a day and how can we get it?

Description: Did you know? The truth about your five-a-day

Where did it come from?

Remembering the slogan is all very well, but how many of us actually know what it means? It’s a bit like the recommended 21 units a week of alcohol. Few of us know, (or, really want to know!) what a unit of alcohol really is.

The idea behind the five-a-day campaign was to try to improve our general health by boosting the amount of fruit and veg we eat. It’s based on advice from The World Health Organization (WHO), which states we should eat around 400g of vegetables and fruit a day.

What are the benefits?

Fruit and veg are packed with vitamins and minerals, including folate, vitamin C and potassium, and are high in antioxidants, thought to protect us against some cancers, heart disease and strokes. They are also high in fibre, which promotes a healthy gut, improves digestion and reduces the risk of bowel cancer. They are also low-calorie density (LCD) foods, so you can eat a lot of them (particularly veggies) without putting on weight, which is important for a healthy diet.

Why is it controversial?

The recommend five is undoubtedly a good vehicle for encouraging you to take on more nutrients through your diet, which has a range of health benefits, but some say there are better ways of doing this.

For a start, there’s an argument that plenty of other foods, notably nuts and essential fats, are a better source of vital nutrients, so we should be encouraged to eat them instead of, or as well as, fruit and vegetables.

Brain function, for example, is dependent on getting enough essential fats into your body. No amount of orange juice is going to improve your memory, but there are plenty of studies showing that supplementation with essential fats could improve concentration. So if you’re having an afternoon lull at work, it may be wiser to grab a handful of nuts rather than another apple.

There is also heated discussion about whether the recommendation should focus on encouraging people to eat more vegetables, rather than sugar-laden fruit.

While vegetables have a range of disease-fighting health benefits, with virtually no downside to speak of, fruit can be very high in fructose sugar. Eating high volumes of fruit, and therefore increasing your intake of fructose sugar, has been linked to weight gain. Eating a lot of fruit can also raise your blood sugar and insulin levels and, in the long term, this could be a factor in insulin resistance and development of type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, there is increasing clamor from many scientists to actually increase the five-a-day to eight-a-day. A new European study, looking at 300,000 people in eight countries, found that those who ate eight portions of fruit and vegetables every day had a 22 per cent lower risk of dying from heart disease.

The verdict

Your best course of action, after considering all the available research, is that your five-a-day should be regarded as a minimum, with eight-a-day as your optimum intake. But, you’ll probably be better off increasing your vegetable intake, rather than the amount of fruit you eat. Ensuring you eat a wide variety of fruit and veg and not just a bag of apples a day is also key to getting the widest range of nutrients possible.

Which foods count?

Currently, the following are included in the five-a-day guidelines:

Fruit – it can be fresh, dried or tinned and includes apples, pears, oranges, melons, berries, peaches, bananas, pineapple, mango, figs and dates.

Vegetables – these can be raw, cooked, fresh, frozen or tinned and include peas, carrots, celery, cauliflower, leek, cabbage, lettuce, tomato, sweet potato and turnips. Unfortunately potatoes and cassava don’t count towards your quota.

Beans and pulses – these also count, and can be dried or tinned. They include baked beans, haricot beans, kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils.

How much is one portion?


Description: Fruit

Small fruit: One portion is two plums, two satsumas, two kiwis, three apricots, six lychees, seven strawberries, 14 cherries.

Medium fruit: Half a grapefruit, one slice of papaya, one 5 cm slice of melon, one large slice of pineapple or two 5cm slices of mango count as one portion.

Dried fruit: One portion is 30g, or one heaped tablespoon of raisins, currants or sultanas, or two figs or three prunes.

Tinned fruit: Two peach halves or six apricot halves.


Description: Green vegetables

Green vegetables: One portion counts as two broccoli spears or four heaped tablespoons of kale, spinach or green beans.

Cooked vegetables: One portion is three heaped tablespoons of carrots, peas or sweet corn.

Salad vegetables: One portion is three sticks of celery, one 5cm piece of cucumber or seven cherry tomatoes. For tinned and frozen veg, one portion is the same as the amount stated for green vegetables.

Beans and pulses: One portion is three heaped tablespoons, but if you eat more, it still only counts as one portion, however much you consume throughout the day.

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