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food for thought

It’s advice we’ve heard many times: Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables each day. Doing so is tied to a slower rate of cognitive decline, healthy blood pressure and a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer.

According to new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, a produce-rich diet is also associated with a lower risk of premature death. And, it doesn’t take as much as you might think.

It seems the optimal intake for longevity is five servings a day, two fruit servings and three vegetables servings.

The latest findings

The study, published in the journal Circulation, analyzed data from more than 100,000 healthy adults who were enrolled in two U.S. studies that lasted up to 30 years. Dietary information was collected every two to four years throughout the study.

Compared to eating only two servings of fruit and vegetables a day, consuming five (two fruit servings and three vegetables servings) was associated with the lowest risk of total mortality. It was also tied to a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory disease (e.g., chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The researchers accounted for other diet components and risk factors to arrive at their findings.

Eating more than five daily servings was not found to offer additional protection.

One serving was defined as one-half cup of cooked or raw vegetables, one cup of salad greens, one whole fruit or one-half cup of chopped fruit or berries.

When the researchers looked at specific types of fruit and vegetables, higher intakes of most were related to increased longevity.

Leafy greens, citrus fruit, vitamin C-rich fruit and vegetables (e.g., cantaloupe, oranges, strawberries, green peppers) and ones high in beta-carotene (e.g., carrots, winter squash, yams, spinach) showed benefits.

Starchy vegetables (e.g., corn, peas, lima beans), white potatoes (mashed, baked, French fried) and fruit juice weren’t found to reduce (or increase) the risk.

The research also pooled and analyzed data on fruit and vegetable intake and mortality risk from nearly two million participants enrolled in 26 studies conducted in 29 countries.

The results were similar. The lowest risk of death was tied to a daily intake of five servings, two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables.

Plate versus servings

According to Statistics Canada, only 28.6 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and older report eating fruit and vegetables five times a day. When fruit juice and potatoes are excluded, the estimate drops to 20 per cent.

Canada’s Food Guide, updated in 2019, no longer outlines recommended daily servings for fruit and vegetables.

Instead, it advises Canadians to “have plenty of vegetables and fruits” and to “make half of your plate vegetables and fruits.” The plate analogy is easier to understand and, therefore, to apply.

But that doesn’t mean that eating five daily servings, an evidence-based target, can’t be your goal.

And, of course, there’s no need to stop at five servings. Eating more will boost your intake of fibre, vitamins and phytochemicals, help aid in satiation and add variety to your diet.

Easy ways get five-a-day (or more)

Include smoothies. They’re a quick and efficient way to consume both fruit and vegetables in one meal or snack. Use any combination of produce that appeals to you.

Blend in leafy greens (e.g., kale, spinach, Swiss chard), raw carrot, pumpkin puree or leftover cooked squash for beta-carotene. Add vitamin C-rich fruit such as strawberries, mango, kiwifruit or a peeled orange.

Fortify with greens. Stir spinach or chopped kale into soups, chilis, stews and pasta sauces near the end of cooking.

Add baby spinach or leftover cooked greens (and other vegetables) to omelets and frittatas. Top a pizza with baby arugula.

Snack on fruit and vegetables. Instead of reaching for a granola bar, make a point of including fresh or unsweetened dried fruit and/or raw vegetables in your midday snack.

Prep in advance. Wash and slice carrots, celery and bell pepper and refrigerate for quick snacks. Grill extra vegetables to top a pizza, toss in salads or add to wraps.

Include frozen vegetables too. They’re convenient (no washing or chopping) and, in many cases, contain more nutrients than their out-of-season counterparts.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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