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General Health - What does '5-a-day' really mean?

By Emma Mihill ND, NT Dip CNM MBANT

The message of “5-a-Day” has filtered through the UK effectively, with most acknowledging its importance, but is it properly understood? There are still some misconceptions surrounding what actually counts as five portions of fruit and vegetables, and whether eating, say, five bananas a day means you are meeting this requirement correctly. 

  • What is one portion?
  • 1 apple
  • 1 banana
  • 1 pear
  • 1 slice of mango
  • 2 broccoli spears
  • 2 plums
  • 2 satsumas
  • 2 kiwi fruit
  • 3 sticks of celery
  • 3 tablespoons of beans (haricot, cannelloni, kidney, butter beans or chickpeas)
  • 3 apricots
  • 3 tablespoons of cooked vegetables; carrots, peas, sweetcorn
  • 4 tablespoons of kale, spinach, or green beans
  • 5cm piece of cucumber
  • 5 medium tomatoes
  • 6 lychees
  • 7 cherry tomatoes
  • 7 strawberries
  • 14 cherries

What doesn’t count?

  • Potatoes – except for sweet potatoes
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Bread

Certainly, a banana contains dietary fibre, vitamin C, potassium, manganese and vitamin B6. However, as the calories are predominantly coming from fruit sugar, eating five bananas a day is not only a lot of sugar, but it also misses the vital point of the ‘5-a-Day’ campaign, which includes variety and, most importantly, vegetables, which are literally packed with essential nutrients.

Why are vegetables and fruits so important? One of the many reasons is that these foods contain the nutrients found to reduce the development of cancer cells, as well as inhibit their spread and growth1. When you increase your plant foods, including herbs and spices, you provide literally thousands of nutrients that have anti-cancer activity2.

Variety and colour are so important when choosing our foods, not only because a colourful plate is more appealing to eat, but also, the colours contain different plant chemicals, important for protecting our bodies. The orange colour found in carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin and mango are rich in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, which is essential for vision. The red/purple colours found in raspberries, blackberries and blueberries have a high concentration of anthocyanins, a superb antioxidant crucial for cardiovascular health and for protecting our bodies against harmful chemicals, known as free radicals.

Understanding the importance of variety leads us to question how much exactly a portion size is and what quantities we should be eating? Ideally, you should aim to eat plant foods that are rich in colour, at every meal. An example of this would be eating porridge for breakfast and then adding a handful of raspberries and a handful of blackberries, counting as two portions. Another breakfast option is to add four tablespoons of spinach and one medium tomato to your scrambled eggs, which would count as two portions.

When choosing your lunch and evening meals, vegetables should dominate your plate, so that half of your plate is filled with a rich variety of colourful options, such as broccoli, cabbage, carrots, sweet potato, peas, green beans, red pepper and leeks, to name just a few options. By making a big salad for lunch with two handfuls of rocket, four cherry tomatoes, a handful of coriander, half an avocado and adding a good protein source, such as fish, meat, lentils, eggs or nuts, you will rank up a possible three to four portions in one sitting.

To boost your intake even further, or if you are struggling to get your quota, you could also use a powdered food supplement that whisks up into a delicious smoothie, and makes up at least one or more of your ‘5-a-Day’. Taking a broad-spectrum antioxidant complex is another great way to protect your body against free-radical damage and also support your immune system.


Article References

1. Milner JA. Nutrition and cancer: essential elements for a roadmap. Cancer Lett. 2008 Oct 8;269(2):189-98. 2. Nishino H, et al. Cancer prevention by phytochemicals. Oncology. 2005;69 Suppl 1:38-40.

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