Many of us aren't getting our recommended dose of fruit and vegetables each day. The Ministry of Health recommends a minimum of 5 or more servings of fruit and vegetables every day – specifically 3 vegetables and 2 pieces of fruit.
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What's a serving?
It's about a handful and you should use your own hand. So, a child's serving will be smaller than an adult's. When dishing up leafy greens, use slightly more, or in the case of diced fruit, slightly less. A serving of legumes, such as beans, will also count as a serving of vegetables.
Why does it matter?
According to a Ministry of Health report, Looking Upstream, a lifetime of not eating enough fruit and vegetables contributed to the same number of deaths in 1997 as alcohol, drugs and acts of violence combined. Cancer Society research concludes that if we all ate just half a serving more a day of fruit and veg, 330 lives a year would be saved. The trouble is the Society also found that most of those not eating enough wrongly believe they are.
Strong evidence supports the link between cancer and a diet lacking in fruit and vegetables, as well as heart disease, atherosclerosis and stroke, while an increased intake of fruit and vegetables can play a role in preventing birth defects, cataract formation, hypertension, asthma, diverticulosis, obesity and diabetes.
Are some better than others?
In the past much of the goodness has been put down to fibre, vitamins and minerals. Although these are important, it's also the phytochemicals (plant chemicals) that help keep you healthy.
Different phytochemicals give fruit and vegetables their individual colours. So, remember to eat a variety of colours, for example:
Does cooking destroy goodness?
Overcooking may destroy vitamins and minerals, so try microwaving, steaming or stir-frying in just a little polyunsaturated or monounsaturated oil, like olive or canola.
However, cooking weakens the cell walls of some vegetables, enabling the body to use more of the nutrients that remain after cooking. For example, studies have found that cooking triples the bioavailability of various antioxidants in yellow, orange and dark green vegetables. It may also boost the availability of folate in spinach.
Do hot chips count as a serving?
No. While potatoes are a good source of vitamin C, minerals and fibre, hot chips fried in fat and smothered in salt are not a good choice for regular eating. However, baked, boiled, steamed or microwaved potatoes do count.
What about pesticides?
The risk from pesticides is small and outweighed by the health benefits. Pesticides in our food are monitored by the New Zealand Total Diet Survey. Results confirm New Zealand's food supply, including fruit and vegetables, has one of the lowest pesticide residues in the world. You can reduce the risk by washing to remove most of the pesticides and the micro-organisms that cause food poisoning.
Is it easier to pop a pill?
No pill can deliver the same nutritional punch as a plate of produce. Studies have shown that when nutrients are isolated out of food and concentrated as supplements they don't have the same benefits.
When tested, beta-carotene and vitamin E extracts have failed to produce any anticipated health benefits in some studies.
Is fresh best?
Fresh or frozen usually provide the most nutrients. However, canned and dried will add variety and are convenient. Look for canned foods with no added salt or sugar.
Juicing and drying will concentrate the antioxidants and certain nutrients. But drying in some conditions can destroy the goodness; juicing will reduce the fibre content (unless you eat the pulp); and both boost sugar levels. Dried fruit may also get stuck in teeth – promoting tooth decay.
What about fruit bars and vegetable juice?
Be wary of products claiming to provide most of your daily serves in one hit.
Campbell's claims one glass of its V8 Vegetable Juice equals 3 serves of vegetables. Although it's a good source of vitamins and minerals, the juice contains less than half the amount of fibre you'd get from eating a tomato, celery stick and carrot – the main ingredients in V8. If you're trying to increase your vegetable intake, better to stick with the real thing.
The Ministry of Health suggests only 1 serving of vegetable or fruit juice counts towards your 5 a day.
The same goes for Annie's 100% Natural Fruit Leather. Each bar claims to equal 2 to 3 pieces of fruit, but don't think this is the same as eating 2 or 3 pieces of fruit, as the drying process destroys some nutrients.
It's worth remembering, diet isn't everything. Failure to get enough physical activity, being overweight, smoking, and a genetic predisposition to certain diseases are also important. Other dietary factors may also make a difference. Include wholegrain bread and cereals, lean protein and low-fat dairy products and limit your intake of saturated and trans fats, sugar, salt and alcohol.