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Health

You'll Die Young if You Only Eat Your Five-a-Day

Forget the old five-a-day mantra. Scientists now say we should eat seven portions of fruit and vegetables a day. But is that even possible?
April 3, 2014, 5:14pm

Photo via Flickr user Debs

Forget the old five-a-day mantra—there's now a whole new way to keep yourself from going into beige shell suits and rheumatoid arthritis. And ready yourself, because this may come as a shock: According to the results of a study released today, eating more healthy stuff is better for you than eating less healthy stuff.

In fact, researchers found that eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day—rather than even one less portion than that—reduces your risk of death at any point in time by 42 percent. The University College London worked with the Health Survey for England to examine the eating habits of 65,226 people, using data taken between 2001 and 2008. Researchers then discerned that the more fruit and vegetables their chosen subjects ate, the less likely they were to die (specifically looking at risks of death by cancer and heart disease, which were reduced by 25 percent and 31 percent, respectively).

“We all know that eating fruit and vegetables is healthy,” says Dr. Oyinlola Oyebode of UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, “but the size of the effect is staggering.” If you look at the figures, she’s right—it is staggering. But I can’t help thinking that the over-optimizing is staggering, too, and the dormant conspiracy theorist in me says there must be some sort of psychological technique at play in the phrasing, i.e., tell people to eat five portions and they’ll eat three or four. Tell people to eat seven and they might just eat five.

Some outlets are suggesting that ten portions a day is more optimal; the implications of which will probably have some people freefalling into despair. Because, really, how realistic is it to ask someone to eat that many vegetables a day? Unless you can deploy an assistant to whizz you up a gallon bottle of veggie smoothies every morning—or have the time and constitution to be consistently steaming broccoli—I'd say it's not very realistic at all.

Break down just how much seven portions of the suggested 80 grams (about six tablespoons) serving amounts to, and it becomes completely impossible. It’s… so… much. My cup regularly runneth over with vegetables (one of my favorite snacks as a child was, apparently, raw parsnips, if that gives you any idea of how much I enjoy food that comes out of the ground), and I still feel not just daunted by the amount of greens I'm supposed to be eating but instantly guilty. Guilty for my future body and the future of the bodies I might birth from it.

One in five of the UK population lives below the official poverty line. Over 13 million people don’t have enough to live on, and the demand for food banks among the UK’s poorest families—although statistically hard to measure—is enormous. Because of the unsustainable ascent in the cost of living, food prices, changes to benefits, and unemployment, people are in a hunger crisis. And although most food banks do offer fresh produce, it goes quickly.

So if you're a young parent who wants to feed yourself and your children, but who has missed out on all the carrots at the local food bank, what do you do with this new information? How are you supposed to stop yourself and your offspring from dying before your or their time? What do you do if you don’t have the means to go to a local market and buy peppers and sprouts? Because while doing so might still be a cheaper way to fill your fridge's vegetable drawer than the overpriced multi-packs you find in inner-city supermarkets, what if you can't afford the bus to get you there in the first place?

If a local supermarket is your only option, you'll buy something cheap and something that's going to keep your family full. If that something is frozen and can be cooked in the time it takes to set the table, so be it. Yes, more models for food education larger than Jamie Oliver’s knife collection should be put into practice, but this is about right now. It’s not about learning how to make dinner last week, it’s "What can I eat tonight?" If you’re in crisis, the immediate future is your only measure of time.

This news isn't just daunting for those in dire straights, either. For the average office worker spending $5 to $10 on lunch every day, how much of this suggested amount of goodness are you getting? Not enough, evidently. Short of those who have a fully equipped kitchen, access to a bountiful local market next to their place of work, and the time and inclination to blanch a few heads of cauliflower come lunchtime, most people are presumably going to find it a little difficult to eat more than a pound of fruit and vegetables every day. And forget those easy routes you might have taken before—fruit juices, smoothies, dried or tinned fruit—because, according to another recent study, sugar is the dietary equivalent of the grim reaper.

So what’s the solution? How do we process this research and act accordingly? The answer, I think, remains the same as for all the stuff we’re told is good or not good for us: common sense. Don't make your life one panicky, number-obsessed day after the next or turn your appetite into a mathematical equation. Just do the best you can, where you can, and maybe shake a few more frozen peas into the saucepan tonight.

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