The 10-a-day diet tested: ‘I feel like a sentient composter’
Like everyone else in the world, my blood ran cold when I heard that we are now expected to eat 10 portions of fruit and vegetables every day. That is double the previous recommended amount, and even that required too much effort for my liking. Oh, sure, the effects of 10 a day sound miraculous – researchers claim that it would decrease our chance of heart disease by 24%, stroke by 33% and cancer by 13% – but it sounds a bit much, doesn’t it?
Perhaps not. “We wanted to investigate how much fruit and vegetables you need to eat to gain the maximum protection against disease, and premature death. Our results suggest that although five portions of fruit and vegetables is good, 10 a day is even better,” said Imperial College’s Dr Dagfinn Aune, lead author of the research.
What does it mean exactly? It’s 10 servings of 80g portions – so three tablespoons of peas, or one pear, say, is a single portion. So, is it do-able?
A YouGov poll from 2012 reported that only one in five of us manage to hit five portions a day, let alone 10. Brave pioneer that I am, I decided to find out over the course of a long weekend, before Guardian cook Felicity Cloake judged my efforts and offered some suggestions of how better to hit my goal.
My breakfast usually consists of horrifyingly sugary cereal, to provide me with the artificial jolt of energy required to see me through the morning. Today, however, I eat a grapefruit, a banana and an apple. Better yet, a whole grapefruit counts as two portions. Still, it’s 7.30am, and I’ve already almost hit half of my daily quota. In your face, science. I’m going to live for ever.
Except I’m not, obviously, because as Harley Street dietitian and sports nutritionist Raquel Britzke points out, favouring fruit over vegetables has problems of its own. “Both give you carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fibre,” she says. “But fruits tend to have more carbs, and consequently more sugar, than vegetables. If you have a slow metabolism or are trying to lose weight, I recommend eating seven portions of veggies and three portions of fruit.” Great.
G2 sends a photographer to my house, to show the world what I look like when I’m near some vegetables. Inadvertently, my lunch becomes all the things that the photographer tells me to put into my mouth. This ends up being an apple, a banana and two different carrots.
On a normal day, my meal of chicken and potatoes would have been entirely vegetable-free but, knowing that I now have a target to hit, I pile up a mound of cherry tomatoes on the side and work through those as well. It’s not quite the advice I was given by another nutritionist, Laura Thomas, who suggested that all meals should consist of at least 50% vegetables, but it’s a start. A bowl of watermelon for pudding and I’ve easily hit my 10.
Total intake: 10 portions.
Stuart has immediately discovered the easy part of fruit and veg consumption: the fruit bit. Australians are told fruit should make up just two of their recommended seven portions a day because of its effect on blood sugar – and he has got through 60g of sugar for breakfast alone. Although our own government seems to take the view that any fresh produce is better than the traditional British diet of Jammie Dodgers, it might be wise to swap some of this fruit for avocado on toast or a mushroom omelette occasionally, and save the sweet stuff for pudding later in the day.
Now that I have a toddler who can shout the word “pancakes” in a vaguely threatening manner, Saturday breakfast is always a rigidly enforced stack of banana pancakes. The good news: one stack has a whole banana in it. The bad news: it also has eggs and flour in it, which fill me up much more than just a banana would. However, I still manage to heroically force down an apple and two satsumas as well. Four portions, done and dusted by 8am. I am the best.
Except, wait. After checking the NHS website, I realise that a satsuma only counts as half a portion, which knocks me back down to three. Undaunted, I eat two more satsumas to boost me back up, which means that I’ve now eaten four satsumas in a row for breakfast. This is no way for a man to live.
I put my son down for a morning nap and, because of this stupid challenge, think: “What a perfect opportunity to eat an entire raw carrot.” It has been years since I last ate an entire raw carrot, and now I see why. Raw carrots are rubbish – all chew and no reward. The carrot takes a thousand years to eat. It takes so long that my son wakes up before I finish, and I have to put the rest of it in my pocket for later. All this work, trying to sneak in a vegetable whenever I have a moment of downtime, is starting to make me feel less like a person and more like a sentient composter.
A bowl of chicken-and-vegetable soup (which counts as a portion, according to the label), and two portions of grapes. Two portions of grapes is 28 grapes, which I count out one by one like some sort of shivering Victorian waif. What have I become?
Later, while running errands, the wind begins. There is a good three-minute stretch where a brand-new fart pops out of my trousers with every step I take. This is new. So much for science; I worry that if everyone eats 10 portions of fruit and veg a day, we’ll all end up dead from methane inhalation.
Meatballs and pasta and tomato sauce (homemade, so it counts) and another big bowl of watermelon. I’ve hit my 10 portions again, and I only had to accidentally fumigate one shop to do it.
Total intake: 10 portions.
Banana pancakes are a painless way to get fruit into children; top with berries to add an extra portion, and ring the changes with cheesy courgette or crispy carrot fritters occasionally. Equally, at this time of year, when salads feel a bit punishing, soup is a lifesaver: minestrone will happily absorb any old odds and ends you have in the fridge. You can also add finely chopped veg to meatballs and burgers (grated carrot or finely chopped spinach are good candidates) – and, of course, if Stuart ever finishes that sugary watermelon, he could always knock up a chocolate beetroot or parsnip-and-orange cake as an after-dinner treat.
The plan was to have a nice, big, healthy breakfast and then head out as a family to a fancy event in London. However, a combination of train cancellations, a sick wife and barely any sleep means that breakfast now consists of a chocolate chip cookie that I made with my son yesterday. The cookie has a glacé cherry on it. Glacé cherries apparently do not count towards your 10 a day. This feels like an oversight on the part of the NHS.
Post-event, with my wife home unwell, my son and I find ourselves in the nightmarish epicentre of tourist hellscape London. Thomas’s advice for eating out is this: “Ordering vegetable sides is a good option, but you could also think about replacing one of your protein foods with beans – they can count as one portion per day. Trying to get more vegetarian meals in, too, will make it much easier, and this is consistent with the advice to cut back on red and processed meat.”
However, this is an emergency; I just want to survive today. Lunch ends up being something that can be eaten quickly at the nearest possible kid-friendly place: a burger and chips from Giraffe. (Chips don’t count as a portion, by the way. I checked.) I could have ordered vegetables but, after yesterday’s carrot debacle, I realise that I would still be there chewing on it now if I had. Knowing what a failure today has become, and remembering that Thomas said they count, I order a smoothie. At least that’s something.
On the train home, I distract my son and, when he isn’t looking, eat some of the snacks I bought for him. I manage six grapes and a third of a satsuma, which is about two-thirds of a portion in total. Still counts, though.
Poor marital communication means that we end up eating chips again in the evening. On the plus side, we also have baked beans. Half a can of baked beans equals one portion of vegetables, and for one beautiful moment I toy with the idea of getting back on track by gorging myself on a multipack. However, the NHS guidance points out that anything over half a can still only counts as one portion, because they “don’t give the same mixture of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients as fruit and vegetables”. This, it dawns on me, also applies to my doubled-up portions of grapefuit, apple and banana on Friday. I check the NHS’s five a day website and it explains that “to get the maximum benefits, you need to eat different types of fruit and vegetables”. Stupid NHS. This isn’t why I pay my taxes.
More watermelon for pudding, but this doesn’t really make up for anything, especially since Britzke has decided to single out watermelon as one of the worst fruits to eat, thanks to its high glycemic index. Nutritionally, today has been a disaster.
Total intake: 3.66 portions.
The problem with fruit and vegetables is that they tend to take more preparation than merely opening a packet (or, in Stuart’s case, the biscuit tin), so it’s a good idea to keep carrot sticks or broccoli florets handy for those moments when you don’t have time to faff about with cooking, ideally with a pot of something delicious to dip them into so you don’t lose the will to live and reach for the crisps instead. In fact, like many healthy eating regimes, fitting more fruit and veg into your diet is much easier with a bit of forward planning. Stock up on frozen veg, tins of beans and pulses, and jars of fruit to add to meals when the salad drawer is bare. Also remember that although the potato is cruelly classed, by the powers that be, as a starchy food rather than a vegetable by the powers that be, the sweet potato is not – and it makes seriously delicious chips. Just saying, Stuart.
Yesterday broke me. Carting a kid about for a day is stressful enough as it is, and fretting about hitting a seemingly arbitrary vegetable target just added another level of anxiety to proceedings. So, today, screw it. I’m just going to eat like normal. And, hey, if it kills me, it kills me. Breakfast is a leftover grapefruit. Happy now?
An apple. If we’re being honest, it’s an apple and two Cadbury Creme Eggs. But we’re only counting the fruit and vegetables I eat, not any of my other disgusting dietary habits. Still, that’s two portions so far.
More chicken-and-vegetable soup. That makes three portions of fruit and veg. If these were the bad old days, back when we were all gormless knuckle-draggers who only thought we needed to eat five portions a day to be healthy, I’d have been laughing. God, I miss the bad old days.
I make shepherd’s pie. It contains two tins of tomatoes, two onions, two carrots, a leek that I had lying around and some frozen peas. If I’ve done my maths right, divided by five, I think this works out at three portions a person. Add in the requisite bowl of watermelon at the end and that’s four portions.
Total intake: seven portions.
In just four days, Stuart’s achieved fruit and veg enlightenment: the secret to eating more is to incorporate them into your ordinary diet, rather than hoping you’ll magically turn into the kind of person who enjoys snacking on raw kale. Adding extra portions to stews, curries, ragus and the like makes it feel a lot less like eating rabbit food than munching on a raw carrot – next time he could try mixing some celeriac into the mash on top of his shepherd’s pie, too. And don’t worry if some days are better than others: if beans on toast and an apple are the best you can manage, it’s still better than nothing. Even if you do have a Creme Egg on the side.
Total four-day intake: 30.66/40 portions
(If you let me have the doubled-up fruit and veg, which you shouldn’t, but hey.)
Without really trying, I’ve come tantalisingly close to the target. It hasn’t made me too farty. It hasn’t caused me any stress. So perhaps this is the secret here: you should just eat as many portions of fruit and vegetables as you can without letting it take over your life. If it goes belly-up for a day – which it will, because there is more to life than endlessly chewing on foliage – then that’s not a big deal. After all, what’s the point of living longer if it’s just going to make you uptight, unhappy and flatulent? Quit whining, science. I’m doing fine.