Opinion

And you thought you were eating right already | Gustafson

Most of us already knew about the importance of eating more fruit and vegetables to stay healthy and control our weight. But now a new study from England suggests that no less than seven servings of fresh produce per day may be required to give us a reasonable shot at good health and old age.

For their research, scientists from University College London (UCL) used data from annual statistical surveys, known as Health Survey for England (HSE), to study the eating habits of over 65,000 Brits, starting in 2001 through 2013.

Based on their findings, they concluded that participants who followed a diet rich in fruit and vegetables could dramatically lower their risk of dying prematurely from any illness, including heart disease and cancer.

For example, people who ate seven or more portions of plant-based foods every day decreased their risk of death from all causes by an astounding 42 percent, from heart disease by 31 percent, and from cancer by 25 percent. These numbers, the researchers observed, held up even after they were adjusted for age, gender, weight, physical activity level, income, education, and lifestyle, including tobacco and alcohol use.

The apparent benefits are staggering, said Dr. Oyinlola Oyebode, the lead author of the study. “The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die at any age.”

Until now, most official guidelines advised about five servings daily. The World Health Organization (WHO) called increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables to “5 A Day” an important part of its “Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health” in 2004. Australia has a public campaign named “Go for 2&5” that promotes eating two portions of fruit and five of vegetables per day, especially for children. In the United States, a program titled “Fruits & Veggies – More Matters” recommends filling half of every plate with fruit and vegetables.

People shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by these numbers, said Dr. Oyebode. “Whatever your starting point, it is always worth eating more fruit and vegetables. In our study, even those eating one to three portions had a significantly lower risk than those eating less than one,” she added.

Critics have pointed out that these latest recommendations may be unrealistic for most people because of high prices for fresh food items. For example, Dr. Naveed Sattar, a professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, said the seven-a-day message was too challenging for many consumers and would require governmental subsidies and/or additional taxes on less healthy products to make high quality foods available to all in society.

Other experts agree. People were already struggling with the existing targets. Plus, in the real world, eating habits are a complex issue that involves numerous variables such as access, affordability, education, and social and cultural differences. Also, simply focusing on the health effects of one or two food groups leaves out multiple other components, including agricultural and environmental factors. Not many of us can devise their own dietary regimen independent of their surroundings.

The bottom line is that we all have to make the best of what we have to work with. The new study, as dramatic as its findings appear to be, is not really new at all. It says that the healthier you eat – plus do the other important things like exercise, manage stress, get enough sleep, don’t abuse your body – the greater the chances will be for you to stay healthy and fit throughout your life. But you probably already knew that, too.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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