Fruit and veg: the REAL benefits of getting your 5 a day
”Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” – Michael Pollan
This has to be the oldest piece of advice out there. Who hasn’t been told at some point to consume more fruit and veg? There’s a very good reason for that. In fact, there’s a few, and we’ll talk about three of them now.
Fruit and veg contain micronutrients, that’s minerals and vitamins. While these things may not sound sexy and they don’t provide instant weight loss, muscle gain or incredible sporting performance increases. They ARE important for your body to function as well as it can and are an integral ingredient in most low fat meal ideas. Again here, we talk about the difference between ‘adequate’ and ‘optimal’ because, realistically, you are very unlikely to succumb to true micronutrient deficiencies in Western countries. Unless you are severely under-eating. Even if your diet is very, very poor, you will be getting trace amounts of the most ‘important’ micronutrients and this will be enough to stop you from getting really sick.
But what if you could become awesome? Feel energised every day? Look younger? Sleep better and have more ‘get up and go’! Whilst coming down with colds about as often as the X factor produces a talented artist? That’s where ‘optimal’ comes in.
To illustrate my point here I’m going to take two micronutrients, Magnesium which is an essential mineral, and Vitamin A.
Vitamin A, also known as retinol, is found in meat, eggs, dairy and especially liver. Its ‘other form’, beta-carotene is found in orange fruits and vegetables. As well as leafy greens such as sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, broccoli, mango, papaya and red or orange peppers. Beta carotene can be easily converted into retinol in your body, so vegetarians and vegans should not need to supplement. Despite the main sources of the ‘better’ version of Vitamin A being found exclusively in animal products.
Vitamin A deficiency is rare. But again, having an adequate intake is not the same as having an optimal intake. Increasing Vitamin A intake from the bare minimum to an optimal amount will improve night vision to a small degree, and can boost your immune system. Helping you fight infections quite a lot – but the main effects are a little more cosmetic.
Vitamin A has been found to improve the appearance of your skin, beyond any anti-ageing effects.
While a lot of people will go out in the sun to improve their skin colour by tanning. There is a far easier way to do this. Consuming an adequate amount of Vitamin A and carotenoids (a pigment also found in orange or red vegetables along with leafy greens) actually changes the appearance of your skin. Making you look far healthier and more youthful! This improvement is so dramatic that when studied, those who had a ‘vegetable tan’ were found to be more attractive than those with a suntan.
So yes, if the health benefits of fruit and veg aren’t enough to draw you in. Eating a wide range of colourful fruit and veg alongside a large amount of green leafy vegetables (that’s kale, spinach, broccoli, sprouts, that kind of thing) will make you look younger and more attractive!
Next up we have magnesium. Magnesium is an essential mineral found in (you guessed it) dark leafy green vegetables, as well as nuts, seeds and some kinds of fish and meat. It’s used in just about every process within the body. From brushing your teeth to lifting a weight, to keeping bones strong to regulating heart rate. While a base level of ‘enough’ magnesium will keep you healthy, there are some large benefits to be gained from increasing your intake a little.
Magnesium, when consumed at an optimal level, will improve your sleep quality and duration (and we all now know how important THAT is)! Check out our blog on the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. Also, It can improve your exercise recovery rate. Because Magnesium is used in the cellular reactions that cause your muscles to move when you exercise you deplete it a little and this can lead to ‘heavy legs’ and general overall stiffness. Eat more magnesium and you’ll recover faster from training (and as a bonus, you’ll probably cramp less if you suffer from this after-effect).
So, the micronutrients in fruits and veg are important, but what else do they do?
Fruits and veg contain fibre – lots of it. This doesn’t, at face value, seem all that exciting. After all, we are told that fibre helps us poop and that’s about it.
How wrong we are.
Fibre is a vital nutrient that serves a number of functions. The main ones are hunger management, blood sugar regulation, blood cholesterol level improvements and, yes, digestive function. Let’s take each in turn.
Fibre manages hunger in two different ways: First, it fills up your stomach and secondly it slows down the rate at which food is emptied from your stomach. I’ll talk about the first half of that in a little bit. Let’s focus on slowing stomach emptying for now.
In essence, some kinds of fibre absorb water and this causes the contents of your stomach to become a kind of gel. This gel makes it take a little longer for food to move from your stomach into your intestine. This isn’t you being ‘bunged up’, as I’ll explain in a second, but it’s actually a really beneficial thing to happen. You’re fuller for longer. Meaning that hunger pangs aren’t an issue: something especially useful while dieting.
The next benefit of fibre is blood sugar regulation. Ever heard that you need to control blood sugar levels to make sure your energy levels are even during the day, or to avoid getting intense cravings? Or have you ever heard that white bread or rice are bad for you? Well, there’s more to the picture than you might think.
The issue of consuming white carbohydrates, which lead to a large increase in blood sugar, the same issue you get from eating ‘processed carbs’ or high sugar foods is mediated by a diet that is high in fibre. When you consume white bread, pasta or rice you are eating a grain that has had the fibre removed, and this means that the above mentioned ‘slowing of the stomach emptying’ is taken away. Food passes through your system and gets absorbed a lot quicker, meaning that blood sugar is able to increase really quickly, and then it’ll drop again in between meals. This often means you will get tired, hungry or sleepy quicker, which then means you will eat sooner than planned, leading to overeating, and you generally feeling NOT awesome.
If, however, you pair a white bread or pasta with a large portion of leafy and fibrous vegetables, you are able to effectively slow the digestion of these foods down, and won’t suffer the consequences (unless, of course, you eat too many calories because white pasta is delicious and you have a huge bowl). As the food passes through your system slower, the absorption into your blood is slower and it continues for a longer time, meaning more stable energy levels! Adding a side dish of stir-fried broccoli and beansprouts to a rice dish, or indeed including some asparagus and spinach within a pasta sauce can dramatically alter what happens to your body when you eat it – and these small changes add up to a large difference in your health when done over a long time period.
Next, fibre can improve cholesterol levels. This is a really complex thing, and it has to do with digestion rates, absorption rates, and also what happens when certain kinds of fibre interact with bacteria in your gut. I’ll just say that a diet high in vegetables that contain a lot of fibre can dramatically improve cholesterol levels (including the ratio of HDL to LDL) meaning that you’re going to be at a much lower risk of heart problems.
Finally, fibre helps your digestion. It increases the ‘bulk’ of your stool, and also (as mentioned) creates a gel that is very easy to pass through the intestine. What this does is increase the speed at which foods can pass through your digestive tract, and it also reduces the amount of ‘residue’ that is left over. A low fibre diet can cause some amount of digested food to remain in your colon for a long time, where it will ferment and become rancid – this is a prime cause of colorectal cancer as well as the slightly more obvious consequence, constipation.
So, feel full, stay fuller for longer, improve the stability of your daily energy levels, reduce the chances of heart problems, avoid constipation and reduce your risk of cancer. If that’s not a laundry list of reasons to increase fibre intake from your fruit and vegetables, I don’t know what is!
Fibre comes in two forms, soluble and insoluble, with the former being found primarily in grains and similar things, and the latter being found in fruits, vegetables, pulses like beans and other plant-based sources. While the former is a highly beneficial part of your diet, it is soluble fibre which carries the bulk of the benefits listed above – this means that while you can theoretically have an adequate intake of fibre by opting for wholegrain bread and pasta as well as high fibre cereals etc (which you should do, insoluble fibre is a great thing to have), you will not be getting all of the benefits of fibre unless a significant portion of your intake comes from plant-based sources like broccoli, cauliflower, bananas, beans and lentils.
So, on to the final benefit – increasing your intake of vegetables and fruits is a GREAT way to decrease your overall calorie intake without actually counting calories.
In the section about fibre, I mentioned that fibre fills your stomach – I’ll go into that a little more now. One of the primary ways your body to get a ‘full’ signal is the physical fullness of your stomach. Food pushes against the sides and causes a signal to be sent to your brain that you’ve had enough. Consider that 100g of broccoli contains around 35 calories and is packed with water and fibre, both of which can fill up your stomach pretty effectively for very few calories.
If you were to take a typical pasta dish, a lot of people will have around ¼ of the plate filled with a meat or a meat substitute and the rest taken up by the pasta. Pasta is really calorie-dense, meaning that per square inch of the stomach, you are taking in a lot of energy. If you need that many calories, this is awesome, but if you are exercising 2-4 times per week and otherwise not moving a great deal it may be more than is needed, resulting in overeating and fat gain.
Thus, what we can do, is to fill ½ of your plate with a variety of vegetables. This means that you still get the same amount of food in a physical sense, and you still get full, but you will have reduced your calorie intake significantly by opting for a far less calorie dense option. Add to this the fact that the fibre within the vegetables will slow gastric emptying (how fast it leaves your stomach) and we have turned a calorie bomb that will make you hungry again in an hour into a balanced meal which will tie you over for a longer amount of time.
Adding 2-3 fist fulls of vegetables to every meal you eat is a recommendation that I make for just about everyone. If you currently aren’t eating any vegetables (or very few) start with one fistful until this becomes ‘normal’ and increase as you go – it’s not about having a perfect diet now, it’s about making improvements over time and working towards the ideal.
Snacking on fruit is also an excellent option. The fibre and water content of an apple, for example, means that you get a tasty sweet snack that fills you up a little and has a load of vitamins and minerals, but you’re not getting nearly as many calories as you would, if you’d had the equivalent food volume in something which is more calorie-dense, like snack bars, biscuits or nuts.
One option might be to make vegetable sticks, like carrot, peppers and celery that you can dip into Eatlean spreadable. This way you get a healthy low calorie snack that also includes a little protein.
To sum up, fruit and veg are good for you – really, really good for you, and you will start to notice the difference in fullness and daily energy levels right from the very first day that you increase your intake. Eating these things isn’t something you just do to avoid being ill, and it’s not something you do just because ‘you have to’. Eating fruit and veg as the MAIN part of your diet (rather than a garnish) is the cornerstone of a healthy diet and the foundations of a healthy lifestyle.
Steam them, roast them, boil them, eat them raw, do what you want with them. While you may have heard that you need to buy organic, this isn’t true, and if your budget doesn’t allow you to buy organic produce there is no reason to think you have to do so (there’s even been a fair bit of research to say that organic veggies are no better for you than regular, though anecdotally some organic things do taste a lot better). And furthermore, on the ‘saving money’ front – frozen vegetables are just as good as fresh, and even some canned things like tomatoes, beans, corn and spinach are great options, too – I would probably leave the canned carrots alone, though, they never taste quite right to me!
Just get the fruit and veg in – you won’t regret it, trust me. I would aim to get 2 portions of fruit and vegetables in at all key main meals, this means that with most people eating a healthy low calorie breakfast, lunch and dinner you can easily eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, sometimes more if making them part of your snacks also.