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". - http://www.heinz.co.uk/faqs
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 5 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 unprocesse 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 twice a day and eating a sensible amount of food for your body, the food you're consuming is likely 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". - http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/5ADAY/Pages/Whatcounts.aspx
Frozen food has the same nutrient value as fresh food, or higher, while it's frozen. As soon as it defrosts or even worse is defrosted through cooking, it's nutrient content is compromised, not only that, the fibre content is negatively affected as well. The simple way to check this for yourself is to put two broccoli florets in a pan of boiling water, one frozen, one fresh. Remove them once cooked and compared the taste and texture. The fresh broccoli is crisper and has more bite as a result of higher 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.
"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". - http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/5ADAY/Pages/Whatcounts.aspx
When you make a smoothie, blending the food does some of the work your teeth and digestive system are supposed to do. Whilst this can have certain advantages in certain circumstances, most of the time chewing your food produces certain enzymes that make digestion more effective. Not only that, the sugar content in most 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". - http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/5ADAY/Pages/Whatcounts.aspx
Beans and pulses have tonnes of fibre and protein as well as providing healthy fats and carbohydrates. 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, from a health, body composition and fitness perspective, its only value in my mind is to prevent starvation. In over 20 years training and education 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.
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 were leaner and had fewer of the major diseases that plague our lives today. If you want to be healthy, eat healthily.
On that note, here are my 5-a-day guidelines:
- Eat fresh whenever possible
- Do as little to your food as possible before eating it
- Work to a ratio of 4-1 vegetables to fruit, (I know it's controversial but the evidence is overwhelming)
- Vary your vegetable sources
- Get as much green on your plate as you can
- If possible, eat organic
- Have your vegetables raw for the last meal of the day 5 days a week
- Choose vegetables that grow above groud and fruits with thin skins
So in summary, eating a minimum of 5 servings of vegetables and fruit a day is a good thing, but only if you do it correctly. 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 for too long to nutrition.