The limitations of ‘five a day’

‘Five a day’ has to be among the most widely recognised public health messages of the last decade or so, particularly within the field of nutrition. So, one could assume that the campaign, first launched in the UK in 2002 (in response to World Health Organization recommendations to consume ‘‘a minimum of 400g of fruit and vegetables per day (excluding potatoes and other starchy tubers)’’) has been a huge success. For the most part, I agree, purely on the basis that most people are aware – just in case they weren’t before – that they should be eating more fruit and vegetables.

However, quantifying the message in such a way has three particular drawbacks, in increasing degrees of severity…

1.       The ubiquity of annoying and ever-so-slightly patronising phrases such as ‘one of your five a day’. For some reason this riles me… not to mention the jokes about raspberry ripple ice cream or peach schnapps (or whatever) counting as one of your five a day, that were funny for about 15 minutes in 2003.

2.       On a not too dissimilar note, this numerical target gives food manufacturers the opportunity to pounce, exploiting consumers’ recognition of the message, in order to proudly proclaim on the front of pack labels that their smoothie or soup has ‘three of your five a day’ despite also having exceptionally high levels of sugar or salt.

3.       For what should be a relatively straightforward concept, there is widespread confusion and misunderstanding when you look beyond the basic headline message. Common questions are about what constitutes a portion size, how much should be fruit and how much should be vegetables, whether frozen, tinned or dried count, how many of the five can juice count for etc etc etc. I don’t want to answer these questions in detail here, so take a look at the NHS 5 a day website for more info.

Public comprehension is tested further by confusing claims and counter claims about whether five a day is in fact sufficient, or whether we should be aiming for seven, nine or even ten a day, as suggested following a recent study by University College London.

Sadly, even 10+ years after the five a day target was introduced, national data shows that we continue to fall short of these goals and this just goes to show how difficult many of us find it to incorporate fruit and vegetables into the diet.

However, let’s take a quick step back and consider why it is important to have a diet rich in fruit and vegetables. Primarily, they are fabulous sources of vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients that perform thousands of fundamental roles to keep our bodies ticking over nicely. They are also usually high in fibre (soluble and insoluble), which not only helps to promote good digestive health but also means they can be fairly satiating (and nutrient-dense) without providing many calories.  Many also have a high water content, which can of course be an added bonus for hydration purposes.

So, although I do appreciate the importance of governments putting out numerical targets alongside public health campaigns, the fundamental message is far less complicated: just eat more fruit and vegetables!


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