vegetable gardening

What does “5-a-day” mean?

Eating 5-a-day means aiming to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day.  Ideally this will consist of no more than two portions of fruit, and at least three portions of vegetables.

The well-known mantra has become ingrained into the UK psyche thanks to our government’s promotion of the dietary approach and corresponding health education.  However, this goal is actually a minimum, set because so many people within the general population do not achieve that many portions.  Seven or even eleven a day is may be more like the numbers we should be consuming!  Are you getting enough?

It is important to remember that there are other nourishing plant foods too.  These include grains, nuts and seeds, which are not counted in the 5-a-day but are still important to support your health.  That is where 30-a-week comes in.

Why do we need fruit and vegetables in our diets?


To start with the obvious one, they all provide a wide range of nutrients.  This includes a few vitamins and minerals that are not generally available in sufficient quantities in animal products.  Without enough of these nutrients, our bodies can’t function properly as they will not have the raw materials required for the processes.  For example:

  • folate (vitamin B9) is important for healthy blood cells, and healthy growth and function. It is especially important for pregnant women (and those trying to conceive) to have good intakes to support their babies’ development.  Animal products are low in this nutrient, whereas green leafy vegetables, beans and peas are good plant sources.
  • vitamin C is an important antioxidant that supports our immune system, helps us absorb iron, and supports our energy processes. Vitamin C can be sourced from a wide range of fruit and vegetables (the best non-plant sources are kidney or liver).

It is important to remember than cooking destroys vitamin C and B vitamins, so where possible include some uncooked fruit and veg in your daily diet.  If you are cooking them, steaming or microwaving will help to retain more of the vitamin than boiling.

For vegetarians and vegans, beans and lentils can also be important contributions to their daily protein intake.

Digestion Support

Another benefit is fibre.  Fibre is important for our digestion as it helps food to move through the digestive system.   There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble.  Plants generally contain both, but in varying amounts.

Soluble fibre attracts water and dissolves.  This slows digestion helping us to feeler fuller, and reduce sugar surges.  It is also thought to help reduce cholesterol levels.  Soluble fibre may therefore be important for cardiovascular health and in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.  Good sources (focusing on the 5-a-day contributors) include: peas, beans, apples, citrus fruit and carrots.

Insoluble fibre attracts water and adds bulk to your stool (poo) making it easier to pass.  It is believed to support bowel health and insulin sensitivity.  Beans are also a good source of this fibre, with other sources including leafy greens.

Microbiome Support – General Good Health

The different types of fibre also provides food for our microbiomes – it is prebiotic. The bacteria in our microbiomes like variety so it is helpful if you can vary your fruit and vegetables through the week.  Studies have shown that the greater the variety of bacteria we have the better it is for our health.  Another source of prebiotics is resistant starch, which can only be found in plant foods including unripe bananas and legumes.  Amongst the gut bacteria that benefit from prebiotics are those that produce short-chain fatty acids, which are believed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

As you will know from my other posts, the importance of the microbiome and gut health is increasingly being linked to the health of the body and mind.  Many health conditions not obviously associated with the digestive system, have been linked to poor gut health.  Therefore supporting the whole of your digestive system and microbiome, may help you to feel healthier all over.

Eat the rainbow

Another phrase you may have heard about eating fruit and vegetables.  Basically, try to eat fruit and vegetables of each colour of the rainbow every day to ensure you are getting a good variety of nutrients.  The different fruit and veg contain different nutrients, there are even small differences in the nutritional content of red and green peppers! Red peppers contain a lot more beta-carotene and extra vitamin C compared to the earlier picked greens.

“But, eating veg makes me…. gives me wind!”

If you find you have problems with wind/flatulence when eating vegetables it is worth making a note of which ones you’ve eaten.  Is there a pattern?  Typically the problem comes from the veggies containing sulfur.  It can also be a sign you have eaten more vegetables (or a particular type of vegetable) than you would normally eat.

If this is a problem for you try:

  • reducing the amount of the problematic vegetables that you eat in a single sitting
  • avoiding those particular vegetables
  • cooking those vegetables in a different way.

If your problems do not go away by following these ideas, it may be helpful for you to seek medical advice so that you can rule out any underlying health concerns.

If you do not often eat a lot of vegetables and want to increase the amounts, try to build up the amount slowly to avoid digestive discomfort.

Fruit and vegetables and IBS (and other gut issues)

Some fruit and vegetables may be triggers for gut problems such as IBS, but overall they can be beneficial for supporting the health of the gut.  It is important to consider symptoms on an individual basis, as the triggers are different for different people.  It may be that sufferers find they can manage smaller portions more frequently, or cooked but not raw vegetables.  For some canned beans may be more suitable than dried and soaked beans.

If you have gut problems you may also find that what you are able to tolerate depends on whether you are experiencing a ‘flare up’.  This flare up may not be due to foods you have eaten (a common non-food trigger is stress), but eating certain foods may aggravate your symptoms – listen to your body!