Fruits and vegetables: do we really need to eat so many?

Fruits and vegetables boost immunity, help reduce cholesterol and constipation and can help to protect against chronic disease. 

The advice to eat two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables each day is something many of us know, but where does it come from and do we really need to eat so many?

How much fruit and veg should I eat?

Health guidelines around the world are pretty consistent when it comes to fruit and vegetables. In Australia and New Zealand, our most recent guidelines reviewed over 90 papers and found that eating five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit each day is the best approach for good health.

Why should I eat fruit and veg?

This is because fruits and vegetables are packed full of the things our bodies need, like vitamins, minerals and fibre, as well as important antioxidants and phytochemicals. They can boost immunity, reduce cholesterol and constipation and help to protect against chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Another big benefit of eating enough fruits and vegetables each day is that they help to replace foods that you might want to eat less of – for example foods high in saturated fats, sugar and salt. The fibre in fruits and vegetables helps to fill you up, making them great for managing your weight.

Did you know?
A recent study reported that eating more fruits and vegetables increases a person’s ability to “flourish” in daily life, and enhances wellbeing and creativity in young adults.

So, which fruit and vegetables should I eat?

The simple answer to this is to eat the ones you like so you can reach the goal of 2-5 a day.

One of the most important benefits of fruits and vegetables is the amount of beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals they contain.

Antioxidants give fruits and vegetables their different colours so a handy way to make sure you're getting a good range of antioxidants and different health benefits is to choose those you like from each of the five different colour groups.

Handy guide

Red: cancer protective

Red fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals including lycopene, ellagic acid and a flavonoid called kaempferol. These can be cancer protective and can also help reduce the risk of heart disease. A high intake of lycopene in particular has been linked with a reduced risk of prostate cancer.

Red foods include:

  • tomatoes

  • red capsicum

  • radishes

  • strawberries

  • watermelon

  • red apples

  • rhubarb

  • cherries

  • red grapes

  • raspberries.

Purple and blue: anti-bacterial

Purple and blue fruits and vegetables contain a group of phytochemicals known as flavonoids and anthocyanins, which have a mild anti-bacterial effect. Resveratrol, which is most commonly found in grapes, may have a cancer protective effect.

Purple and blue foods include:

  • beetroot

  • purple asparagus

  • red cabbage

  • eggplant

  • plums

  • blackberries

  • blueberries

  • purple grapes.

Orange and yellow: eye health

Phytochemicals known as carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin), give this group their bright yellow and orange colours. Lutein is a carotenoid that gets stored in the eye and has shown to help protect against two of the most common causes of blindness: cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

Orange and yellow foods include:

  • carrots

  • pumpkin

  • corn

  • kumara (sweet potato)

  • rockmelon

  • lemons

  • mangoes

  • pineapples

  • oranges.

Green: cancer protective

Phytochemicals in green fruits and vegetables include varying amounts of flavonoids and carotenoids (lutein, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin). The Brassica group (broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts) also contains indoles, which can help to protect against cancer. Saponins, another powerful phytochemical found in green plant foods, also have anti-cancer properties, and may stop cancer cells from multiplying. Leafy greens, such as Asian greens, spinach and lettuce are an excellent source of folate.

Green fruits and vegetables include:

  • spinach

  • broccoli

  • asparagus

  • peas

  • avocado

  • green apples

  • green grapes

  • limes

  • kiwifruit

  • green pears.

White and brown: anti-viral

Not as vibrant as the other colour groups, this group contains phytochemicals like allicin, which have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. White and brown fruits and vegetables include:

  • cauliflower

  • garlic

  • ginger

  • mushrooms

  • onions

  • potatoes

  • parsnip

  • turnip

  • bananas

  • brown pears

  • dates.

Add some spice

Spices are a great way of topping up the antioxidant content of your meals and have the added benefit of reducing the need for adding salt to flavour your recipes. In fact, the antioxidant and phytochemical activity in spices is so high that even small amounts can provide a significant antioxidant and phytochemical boost to your diet.

Great spices include:

  • garlic

  • ginger

  • turmeric

  • coriander

  • parsley

  • organo

  • basil

  • thyme

  • sage

  • rosemary

  • saffron

  • chives

  • mint

  • cinnamon.

Recipes to try

Mains
Cauliflower fritters
Vegetable frittata
Roast vegetable pasta bake
Roast vegetable tart

Soups
Vegetable barley soup

Salads
Moroccan chickpea salad
Roast beetroot feta and rocket salad

Smoothies
Berry oat smoothie
Banana berry smoothie

Desserts
Free form berry tart

Snacks
Fruit popsicles

References

  1. Australian Department of Health. Eat for health. A review of the evidence to address targeted questions to inform the revision of the Australian Dietary Guidelines (Evidence Report). [Internet] 2011 [cited 2016 August 3]; available from: https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/sites/default/files/files/the_guidelines/n55d_dietary_guidelines_evidence_report.pdf 
  2. Boeing H, Bechthold A, Bub A, et al. Critical review: vegetables and fruit in the prevention of chronic diseases. Eur J Nutr 2012;51:637-663.
  3. Liu RH. Health-promoting components of fruits and vegetables in the diet. Adv Nutr 2013;4:384S-392S.
  4. Nutrition Australia. Eat a rainbow. [Internet] 2016 [cited 2016 May 3]; available from: http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/national/resource/eat-rainbow
  5. Carlsen MH, Halvorsen BL, Holte K, et al. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutr J 2010;9:3-13.
  6.  Conner TS, Brookie KL, Richardson AC, Polak MA. On carrots and curiosity: eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life. Brit J Health Psyc 2015;20(2):413-427
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