If you obsessively count every piece of fruit and vegetable in pursuit of the magic “five a day” it seems you can relax — one of the largest studies of its kind has concluded that there is no point having more than three.
People who ate three or four large portions of fruit and vegetable a day were a fifth less likely to die early than those who had less than one but eating more offered no extra protection, research in 18 countries found.
Raw vegetables seem particularly healthy, with those who ate more than two servings a day a third less likely to die early, and researchers said that guidelines should stress such benefits.
The NHS has run a five-a-day campaign since 2003, based on recommendations from the World Health Organisation, but only a quarter of people reach this level. The average adult eats 3.5 portions a day and the latest study suggests they may be getting it right.
Canadian scientists examined 135,000 healthy people on five continents, following them for a decade, during which time 5,800 died. Those who had three or four portions of fruit and veg a day were 22 per cent less likely to die during the study than those who ate one, after adjusting for their lifestyle.
The risk did not get any lower with higher fruit and vegetable consumption, even in those who had more than eight a day, researchers told the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Barcelona.
“If you reach three to four servings you reach the maximum benefit that you need,” said Andrew Mente of McMaster University in Ontario, who presented the results. “This is good news, because it is much more feasible to achieve three to four servings than it is to achieve more than five a day.”
He added: “We found that raw veg were more beneficial than cooked veg, which is not defined in any of the guidelines — we should emphasise raw.”
A portion was defined as 125g, which is larger than the UK definition of 80g, and the researchers argued that variety did not seem to matter as much as British advice implied.
Earlier this year we were told to eat ten a day. Now we have heard that you can get all the protection you need from three. It’s no wonder people get confused.
Separating the effect of one type of food from all the other things that people eat and do is notoriously tricky, which is why findings can seem inconsistent and one study is never enough to make firm recommendations.
In the latest study, the protective effect of fruit and vegetables appeared much bigger before adjustment was made for other habits: kale is as much a marker of a healthy lifestyle as a cause. Portions were also larger, so people eating three a day were not far off five British portions.
One thing is very clear: there is no disadvantage to eating more fruit and veg. So if you’re wondering whether to go for that extra portion of spinach, this study shouldn’t stop you.