Originally published in 2012, but revised in 2021 to allow for changes in my understanding and the evidence base.
Main changes were as follows:
- I no longer feel organic food has a massive advantage for most people.
- I've adjusted the language regarding frozen food based on a lack of evidence for the frozen vs. fresh point. I still feel there is a difference, but there's no scientific evidence to support this (or contradict it either).
- I no longer feel that raw veg has as much value as I used to. That doesn't mean it has none either, just that I don't think it warrants as much focus as I previously thought.
- I've changed to language of the overall article to clarify that these are my opinions. As a professional educator AND practitioner, there are many areas where the science and the practice don't always link up. That said, I've changed my mind on enough things over the last decade to be comfortable acknowledging that my understanding will probably change again over the next decade. Therefore, I've tried to make the overall tone of the article less arrogant git.
- My thanks to Shane, who's e-mail about the article, prompted the revision.
Driving in to work this morning, I heard something on the radio that almost made me lose control of my vehicle.
It was an advert for Heinz Tomato soup and the gist was that by consuming it, you're getting one of your five vegetable servings a day. Holy Sh1t!
Having looked on the Heinz website, this is their justification for this statement:
"One of your 5 a day equals 80g of vegetables so if a portion of soup contains 80g vegetables it counts as one of your 5 a day. Heinz Tomato Soup counts as one of your 5 a day".
Firstly, I'd like to make it clear that I have nothing against Heinz, nor any of their products. My issue here is with the purpose, definition, interpretation and presentation of the 5-a-day rule.
To start with lets consider the purpose of the 5-a-day rule. By consuming five portions of healthy vegetables and fruit (the reversal of these two sources is deliberate, but more on that later), we can ensure our bodies are provided with a balanced amount of anti-oxidants, fibre, minerals, vitamins, polyphenols and other micronutrients. We can also ensure a limited percentage of refined or processed food in our diet. In turn, by consuming unrefined and unprocessed foods, our digestive tract becomes clearer, cleaner and less inflamed, bodyfat levels reduce and nutrient transit time in the gut improves, (if you're not pooing at least once a day and eating a sensible amount of food for your body, the food you're consuming is possibly putrefying inside you).
The definition of 5 x 80g of fruit/vegetables therefore assumes all vegetables and all fruits are created equal, which they aren't. Compare cucumber to spinach. The former has very little to recommend it, the latter is a nutritional powerhouse, absolutely crammed with healthy nutrients. Compare oranges to blueberries. Aside from the vitamin C in oranges, you'll get a little fibre and not much else. Blueberries are packed with antioxidants, polyphenols and Vitmain C, AND cause less of an insulin response when you eat them.
The following statements from the NHS present some major flaws:
"Fruit and vegetables don’t have to be fresh to count as a portion".
Frozen food has the same nutrient value as fresh food, or higher, while it's frozen. (Selected nutrient analyses of fresh, fresh-stored, and frozen fruits and vegetables. Li et Al. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis. Volume 59, June 2017, Pages 8-17)
Whilst this study shows that nutrient levels in frozen food are equal or higher than fresh or refrigerated food, that is for foods still in their whole state. This does not refer to foods found as ingredients in frozen meals. We know that in many cases, exposing foods to heat can reduce nutrient values. My feeling is that as soon as food defrosts it is more delicate than when fresh and therefore when cooked, more likely to have its nutrient and fibre content more negatively affected.
I've tried to find studies on this, but either they don't exist, or my research skills suck. Many of the studies available look at vitamin C levels, as it's the least stable nutrient and therefore the most likely to be adversely affected by freezing. But, they all look at the food in its frozen or recently defrosted state. So, if your consuming frozen food frozen (such as in an iced smoothie), or recently defrosted, you're probably okay. However, the more delicate the food, the more adversely I think it tends to be when cooked.
The simple way to check this for yourself is to put two broccoli florets in a pan of boiling water, (one frozen, one fresh), for 3-4 minutes. Remove them once cooked and compared the taste and texture. The fresh broccoli is crisper and has more bite as a result of higher or less compromised fibre levels. The outer surface of the food also stays intact in cooking more effectively, meaning the nutrients stay in the food and don't 'leak out' when cooked. Plus, the fresh stuff tastes better, at least in my opinion.
"A smoothie containing all of the edible pulped fruit and/or vegetable may count as more than one portion but this depends on how it's made".
Smoothies are a great way of getting more fruit and veg into your system than you're currently managing.
When you make a smoothie, blending the food does some of the work your teeth and digestive system are supposed to do. It can also reduce the fibre content and change blood sugar response (although less than juicing). (Comparison of the Effects of Blending and Juicing on the Phytochemicals Contents and Antioxidant Capacity of Typical Korean Kernel Fruit Juices. Pyo et Al. 2014. Pub Med. PMID: 25054109)
Whilst this can have certain advantages such as raising the nutrient availability, most of the time chewing your food produces certain enzymes and slows digestion, both of which may make it more effective.
Not only that, the sugar content in most shop bought smoothies is sky high, pulp or not. For a great alternative, check out the Precision Nutrition Super Shake.
"Beans and pulses only count as one portion a day, no matter how many you eat because they contain fewer nutrients than other fruits and vegetables".
This premise is flawed as whilst beans and pulses may contain less vitamins than other vegetables, they have plenty of minerals, fibre and protein, as well as providing healthy fats and carbohydrates. Therefore to say they have less nutrients is mis-leading.
I tend to substitute these for typically starchy carbs in my diet if I need the extra energy.
People often misunderstand or underestimate the value of fibre. As mentioned above, you need it to ensure food stays inside your system just long enough to get the nutrients out of it, but no so long that it starts to rot.
"Fruit and veg in convenience foods, such as ready meals and shop-bought pasta sauces, soups and puddings". - http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/5ADAY/Pages/Whatcounts.aspx
If a fruit or vegetable is in a convenience food, then from a health, body composition and fitness perspective, it has questionable value.
In over 20 years of teaching and educating people on healthy nutrition and exercise, I have encountered hundreds of people eating so-called 'healthy' convenience foods, who themselves have been anything but. All of them, without exception, experienced increased energy, improved body composition and enhanced mood after modifying their food intake to include more whole foods and less processed food.
Convenience food is exactly that, convenient. Its primary purpose is to save you time and effort. Now admittedly, not all convenience food is equal and since the time this article was originally published, there are much better convenience options. With that in mind, if your convenience food was cheap, frozen and makes no sensible nutrition or health claims, then its only value is still probably convenience.
At the risk of coming across as agressive on this point, eating healthily requires work. Yes it's harder. 100 years ago we didn't have microwaves or packaged foods and people ate roughly 800 calories a day less and expended 600 calories a day more. We on the other hand have fewer of the major diseases that plagued people back then, with one major exception. Obesity. If you want to be healthy, eat healthily.
On that note, here are my 5-a-day guidelines:
- Eat fresh whenever possible and practical
- If you're using frozen foods, consume delicate foods such as thin skinned berries/fruit as close to frozen as you can, or choose more robust vegetables such as cabbage, peas and beans
- Do as little to your food as possible/necessary before eating it
- Work to a ratio of 4-1 vegetables to fruit, (this is to ensure a broader intake of minerals, which are typically higher in vegetables)
- Vary your vegetable sources
- Get as much green on your plate as you can
- Combine vegetables with beans and pulses to boost your protein and fibre intake
So in summary, eating a minimum of 5 servings of vegetables and fruit a day can be a good thing, but only if you do it correctly. In my opinion, the way the current recommendations are set up allows for too much unhealthy interpretation. On that note I'll leave you with an old rhyme I remember children reciting at school. The same logic used in this rhyme has been applied far too often to nutrition.
"A king's a ruler, a ruler's a foot and feet stink".