fruit and vegetable intake

Fruit and vegetable intake: Guidelines vs reality

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend an average minimum daily intake of 5 serves of vegetables (including legumes) and 2 serves of fruit to prevent chronic disease.

Nutrients in fruits and vegetables

Most fruits, vegetables and legumes are good source of carbohydrate (sugar and/or starch) and fibre. They also water and contain micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Most are low in fat with few exceptions (olives, avocados, coconuts).

Legumes are a decent source of protein and some contain non-haem iron, which is less bioavailable than haem iron from animal sources. Legumes also contain phytates which act as antioxidants but bind to minerals, affecting their absorption. Cooking and storing methods can affect the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables, but that’s another topic for another time.

Why do we need fruits and vegetables?

Most healthy and long-living populations around the world have something in common a diet based on fresh vegetables and fruits. The pharmaceutical industry has tried to isolate individual nutrients and pack them into pills, but it is clear that the biggest benefits come from eating whole foods. It has been postulated that some positive health effects are due to hormesis (favourable response to a low dose of an otherwise harmful compound).

There is evidence that vegetable consumption decreases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Vegetables may also prevent weight gain and decrease risk of various cancers. The consumption of legumes is associated with reduced risk of colorectal cancer, and, in the case of soy, reduced total and LDL-cholesterol (1).

Consuming fruits may also decrease risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Fruit intake is also associated with a reduced risk of obesity, weight gain and oral and nasopharyngeal cancer (1).

What is the recommended fruit and vegetable intake?

The number of serves per day recommended in the Australian Dietary Guidelines (1) vary according to gender, age and life stage.

Recommended number of serves per day
Age (years) Vegetables and legume/beans Fruit
Boys 2–3 2 ½ 1
4–8 4 ½ 1 ½
9–11 5 2
12–13 5 ½ 2
14–18 5 ½ 2
Men 19–50 6 2
51–70 5 ½ 2
70+ 5 2
Girls 2–3 2 ½ 1
4–8 4 ½ 1 ½
9–11 5 2
12–13 5 2
14–18 5 2
Pregnant (up to 18 years) 5 2
Breastfeeding (up to 18 years) 5 ½ 2
Women 19–50 5 2
51–70 5 2
70+ 5 2
Pregnant (19–50 years) 5 2
Breastfeeding (19–50 years) 7 ½ 2

What is a serve?

Below is the definition of a serve of vegetables/fruit according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines (1). My philosophy is: when in doubt, eat more vegetables.

Vegetables

One serve = 75g, e.g.

  • ½ cup of cooked vegetables or legumes
  • 1 cup of raw vegetables
  • ½ medium potato or equivalent of sweet potato, taro, sweet corn or cassava
  • 1 medium tomato

Fruit

One serve = 150g, e.g.

  • 1 apple, banana, orange or pear
  • 2 apricots, kiwis or plums
  • 1 cup diced fruit, berries, grapes, etc.

Note that the type of vegetables and fruits that you should eat depend on your individual carbohydrate tolerance, goals and health conditions.

How many people are eating the recommended amount?

The short answer is: very few. According to the latest National Health Survey: First Results, 2014-15 (2, 3), most Australians do not meet the guidelines. Below are the percentages of people who did meet their target fruit and vegetable intake:

Vegetables

  • 7% of adults (3.8% males, 10.2% females)
  • 5.4% of children (4.3% males, 6.3% females)

Fruit

  • 49.8% of adults (44.0% males, 55.4% females)
  • 68.1% of children (65.0% males, 71.8% females)

The age groups less likely to meet vegetable and fruit intake are children 12-18 and adults 18-24 years old. Conversely, males 75+ years old, females 65-74 years old and children 2-3 years old were the population groups whose intake were closer to their target.

The following graphs show the proportion of adults having X number of serves of vegetables/fruit per day (data from 2).

The following graphs show the proportion of children having X number of serves of vegetables/fruit per day (data from 3).

Recommendations

  • Fill at least half of your plate with vegetables
  • Because different plants contain different nutrients, it is important to vary your intake
  • Eat fruits and vegetables in season: they are cheaper, have better flavour and nutrient content and are more likely to be local
  • Listen to your body to determine if particular foods cause you issues. For example, many fruits and vegetables are sources of FODMAPs, so you might have to limit their intake if you have any symptoms. Work with a dietitian if you need help.
  • If you’re struggling to eat more vegetables here are some ideas:
    • Throw some spinach, kale and/or avocado into your smoothies
    • If you have a juicer that keeps the fibre, use beetroot, carrot, celery and/or cucumber in your juices
    • Add vegetables to your soups, stews, curries, pasta sauce and even desserts (carrots, beetroot, beetroot and sweet potato are common addition to cakes)
    • Use vegetable sticks instead of crackers to eat dips
    • Serve pasta sauce and stews on vegetables instead of pasta or rice
    • Use other vegetables besides potatoes for mash, for example cauliflower, parsnips, celeriac, turnips, sweet potato, pumpkin (or a combination)
    • Add greens to your regular mash
    • Visit the recipe section for inspiration

References

  1. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council; 2013.
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015, National Health Survey: First Results, 2014-15, ‘Table 12: Daily intake of fruit and vegetables – Australia’, data cube: Excel spreadsheet, cat. no. 4364055001DO012_20142015, viewed 8 November 2018, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/log?openagent&4364055001do012_20142015.xls&4364.0.55.001&Data%20Cubes&21142A5792B57B5BCA257F150009FABA&0&2014-15&08.12.2015&Latest
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015, National Health Survey: First Results, 2014-15, ‘Table 17: Children’s daily intake of fruit and vegetables and main type of milk consumed – Australia’, data cube: Excel spreadsheet, cat. no. 4364055001DO017_20142015, viewed 8 November 2018, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/log?openagent&4364055001do017_20142015.xls&4364.0.55.001&Data%20Cubes&F2CCDDF4D775330CCA257F150009FBBD&0&2014-15&08.12.2015&Latest

[Photo by ja ma on Unsplash]

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