When the UK government launched the 5 a day campaign they were advised by health professionals that most adults should actually be aiming for more like 8 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. However, the government decided on our behalf that advising us to eat 8 a day would put most people off from even trying and decided on the arbitrary figure of 5. The alarming truth is that many people don’t even get close to this amount and some children especially teenagers don’t come near a piece of fresh fruit or veg all day. With a typical day for many consisting of cereal or toast for breakfast, a sandwich/bagel or chips for lunch, and then pasta/pizza or meat with carb for dinner. Aiming for 5 a day is definitely a step in the right direction however many nutrition professionals would actually advise you eat 10 a day! And not just 10 bananas, it’s the variety that really counts.
Instead of thinking about good and bad and healthy and unhealthy food, let’s start at the beginning and think about why we eat and how ended up eating the way we do. Humans have evolved as hunter gatherers, to get everything they need from the natural world. Plants can turn sunlight into energy that we can utilise when we eat them and animals who have eaten these plants can also provide us with this energy. Fast forward to a post war western world of the 1950s and we are left with large manufacturing infrastructure and an economy that relies on mass consumption, and persuading people to consume more and more year on year. In order to do achieve this, they invented food like products, cheap, and nutritionally poor, new foods, and times to eat were sold to us as modern, life improving and time saving. From Breakfast cereals, muffins and coffees on the way to work, midmorning snacks, fast food and take away lunches, afternoon snacks, crisps, chocolate, biscuits, and packet ready meals. Unfortunately, these foods developed to taste great and stimulate all the pleasure centres in the brain, are easily available but not only devoid of nutrition, they are highly addictive. ‘Food like’ substances not only serve up zero nutrition they add more stress to the elimination systems of the body such as the liver which have to work harder to deal with these foreign substances.
Let’s think about what happens to food when we eat? We are mainly taught in school that we are like machines and food is simply the energy we put in, e.g. petrol in a car, but the reality is slightly more refined. While most of the carbohydrates we eat are converted to glucose which can then be processed into something call ATP which is the energy currency in the body and powers all physiological functions in the body from running for the bus to decision making. Any excess carbohydrates can be stored in the liver or muscles for future use, or converted to fat cells again for long term storage. Most of the fats we eat are used to form the membranes of every cell in the body, this is why the type of fat we eat is so important (blog post on this coming soon!). Fats are also used to synthesise steroid hormones which play a role in immunity, stress, pain and reproductive functions.
The protein we eat is mainly broken down into its smaller pieces call amino acids, these are then rebuilt into all sorts of wonderful things, hormones, immunoglobulins, the haemoglobin in red blood cells that carries oxygen, muscles, neurotransmitters, structural proteins like collagen… All the exciting vitamins, minerals and sexy sounding phytonutrients that receive so much press, are what we consider co factors, they are essential for the biochemical reactions that allow all of this to take place, for example carbohydrates can’t be converted to energy without certain B vitamins. So now you can see what we eat is actually what we become, if the right ingredients don’t go in we can make or synthesise the essential elements of us, and this is where things start to go wrong. The body is very efficient and will prioritise keeping our vital organs functioning which is why a diet lacking in nutrients leads to tiredness, chronic skin conditions, aches and pains, cognitive difficulties such as anxiety, headaches, poor memory, imbalanced hormones, and weakened immune system.
As a nutritional therapist, many people who come to see me would like a supplement to ‘cure’ their ailments, and while supplements definitely have a place in symptom relief and readdressing imbalances, the simple boring fact is that eating more fruit and vegetables would alleviate most complaints and prevent many future conditions. The prescription to eat 10 a day really will give you more energy, improve your appearance, sleep, memory, digestion, immunity, hormonal balance, and lower the risk or long term chronic illness. The biggest challenge we all face is how to eat the way nature intended while surrounded by temptation from manufacturers, marketing, and highly addictive ‘food like’ products. Instead of demonising processed foods which tend to make them more attractive, I suggest crowding out, adding in more real food to reduce the space to eat the ‘fake’ foods. Try to add two portions of fruit or vegetables first thing, porridge with berries and a grated apple, eggs with avocado and spinach. While smoothies are a great way to pack in lots of fruit and vegetables, they aren’t as beneficial as chewing and digesting the whole thing, so make sure this isn’t the only hit you’re getting. Soups with a side salad are a great way of getting them in at lunch or carry some chopped carrot, peppers, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes in a zip lock back to snack on throughout the day, crunchy foods provide greater satiety. And finally, when you get to the evening meal do a mental run through of what you’ve had that day and top up. You could compare with a partner or the whole family if the competition spurs you on. when you plan your meal always add one more portion of veg you’ll be doing more for your long-term health than any wonder supplement could ever do. Maybe there was something in the old adage an apple a day (or 10!)