In the second of his articles on nutrition, Leinster’s Head Performance Nutritionist, Daniel Davey, discusses the importance of fruit and vegetables in a healthy diet…

Introduction

Before tackling more controversial or complex nutrition topics, which I will be in future articles, it is important to remind ourselves of the fundamental aspects to nutrition and why variety in our diet is so important. Modern life is fast-paced and frantic. Time is always precious and the stress load from school, sport, college and work is ever-increasing. It is often not a healthy combination. We should support our health with good nutrition habits, but instead we often search for more convenient, processed options that only serve to exacerbate our stress levels and lead to suboptimal health. Eating well with appropriate foods coupled to a healthy lifestyle and frequent physical activity are the key components for optimum health and well-being. 

Think about what you eat

Shortage of time is the usual reason given as to why we don’t make better efforts to eat well, but a lack of cooking skills, lack of understanding of nutrition and high cost of “good” food are often mentioned too. A general lack of appreciation of the profound long-term negative health implications of inappropriate food choices is, in my experience, a key reason why many people don’t take more care with their daily diet. I think that if people truly and fully understood the gravity of bad eating habits on their long-term health beyond simply the aesthetic issue of weight gain, then they would make a greater effort to eat healthy every day.

Some of the potential consequences of an inadequate diet include:

1. Tiredness and poor concentration
2. Increased risk of being overweight and obese
3. Greater risk of lifestyle related disease like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease
4. Increased risk of depression
5. Weak immunity
6. Bad skin, hair and nails
7. Increased rate of ageing

According to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, “if we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health”. My opinion is that fruit and vegetables are the most essential components of a balanced diet and a key factor in the management of physical and mental stress.

Fruit and vegetable intake recommendations

If you ask a 10 year old how many pieces of fruit and vegetables that they should eat on a daily basis, you will receive a quick and accurate response. “At least” 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day is the quantity recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). One portion of fruit and vegetables equates to 80 g – hence, a total of 400 g daily. In real food terms, an example of this is approximately one medium sized apple, one medium sized orange and three cups of broccoli, butternut squash and bell peppers, respectively.

Even though most people including our hypothetical 10 year old are aware of this recommendation, figures show that on average Irish people are not meeting these guidelines. The recent National Adult Nutrition Survey (NANS) report revealed that the average intake of fruit and vegetables in 18-64 year old Irish adults average just 192g per day (compared to the WHO-recommended 400 g per day), whereas only 9% of this age group met the WHO guideline.

Interestingly, in other nations including France, Canada and Denmark, people are recommended to consume a minimum of 6, but aim for 10, portions of fruit and vegetables daily. Our European friends in Spain (605 g per day), Italy (479 g per day) and France (467 g per day) are clearly taking heed of the guidelines. In Japan, the recommended intake of fruit and vegetables is 17 portions per day, which is a whole lot of chopping and chewing.

So, how much fruit and vegetables should we eat daily? My belief is that we should be consuming a large majority of our energy from fresh, whole foods, which of course includes fruit and vegetables. The aim should be to eat some form of fruit or vegetables with every meal or snack. That might sound extreme, but this might add up to roughly 9 portions of fruit and vegetables daily, 5-a-day rule should be considered the bare minimum. I think people often forget that the rule says “at least” 5-a-day, not “only” 5-a-day!

This is something that I advise the Leinster Rugby players to achieve each day. In fairness to them, they are excellent at implementing this advice and realise and appreciate the value of a varied diet through improved energy levels, faster recovery and of course from looking and feeling better. Smoothies, soups and stir-fries are particulary popular among players who strive to consume as much fresh fruit and vegetables as they can.

The benefits

Fruit and vegetables are not only packed with nutrients that keep our body healthy but they also provide a sustained supply of energy by steadying our blood sugar levels, support good bowel function through the presence of fibre, and play a key role in immune function. Substantial evidence now supports the following benefits from eating a minimum of 400 g (5 x 80 g portions) or more of fruit and particularly vegetables:

A. Look and feel better
B. Reduced risk of disease such as cancer and cardiovascular disease
C. Improved body composition
D. Enhanced energy levels
E. Stronger immunity
F. Enhanced digestion

Practical suggestions to meet or exceed your 5-a-day

1. Make homemade soups, fruit smoothies and sauces
2. Make your plate as colourful as possible
3. Use fruit as a snack instead of a processed snack

Conclusion

Fruit and vegetables are the cornerstone of a healthy diet and their benefits for long-term health are extensively documented. Unfortunately many of us do not realise just how important it is to have consume at least five portions of fruit and vegetables daily. Think of fruit and vegetables as your main source of energy rather than it been a daily chore or task to complete. The message of consuming at least five portions of fruit and vegetables communicates the bare minimum amount that is appropriate for promoting long-term health and well-being. Considering the long list of benefits to our health, it is imperative to make healthier food choices on a daily basis. Aiming to eat four portions of fruit and five portions of vegetables seems like a straight-forward choice.

Looking for healthy fruit and vegetable recipe ideas? Check out @FoodFlicker on Twitter or FoodFlicker on Facebook.

Read Daniel’s ‘Introduction to Nutrition’ article here.