Thoughts on health, happiness and sustainability

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Could you eat 10 a day?

We are all familiar with the concept of ‘5 a day’, promoted by the government and NHS as the recommended number of fruit and veg portions that we should all eat every day.  The idea has been around for years and people often make remarks about it, but I’ve never stopped to actually check whether or not I eat 5 a day.

Then recently it came up in conversation that there was talk of raising the recommendation to 7 a day and it got me curious, so for a few days I kept a rough tally in my head and found that I was eating about 6 to 6.5 a day.  Pretty good I thought.  But I wondered whether this was really enough and had seen a headline on a newspaper recently claiming that we should all be aiming for 10 a day.  It sounded like a nice idea, but I wasn’t sure if it was necessary or practical.

Then necessity spurred me on to test it out for myself.  I had been tiring myself out working long hours on stressful projects (needing to take some of my own stress relief tips!) and I realised that if I don’t do something about it then I am going to fall ill very soon.  This is of course completely subjective, but my wife will confirm that I have an almost 100% success rate in predicting when I am going to fall ill.  So could increasing my fruit and veg intake make me stronger and better able to cope with the heavy load of work?  I wanted to find out.

The 10 a day challenge

So I decided that I was going to take on the personal challenge of eating 10 portions of fruit and veg per day for 10 days.  The objective would be to find out if:

  1. It was even practical to eat to much fruit and veg
  2. I could notice any difference in my well being

To make it easy, I decided that I would use the NHS definition of 5 a day,  which is 80g of any fruit or vegetable, excluding potatoes.  It also states that 150ml of juice counts as 1 portion, but you can only count one per day.  So I worked on this basis but to keep things simple and to save myself from weighing everything, if the 5 a day portion size was written on the packet then I would use that as my guide.  I had never really noticed, but nearly all fruit and veg sold in packets in UK supermarkets has the 5 a day portion size displayed.

I also decided that I wasn’t going to count dried fruits such as raisins and dates, nor was I going to count garlic and onions.  The reason for the latter was simply that there are small amounts in a lot of food that we eat and I thought it would be too hard to keep track of.

So how did I get on?

At the end of 10 days, I was amazed at how easy it had actually been.  I had averaged 14 portions a day and was feeling far more fresh and energetic.  Not only that, but I had not fallen ill like I had predicted.

I found that as soon as I got my mind focussed on the challenge, it wasn’t that hard at all.  The key factors were:

  • Understanding how much is one portion
  • Keeping a track of a running total, which I did by keeping a small notepad with me
  • Buying enough fruit and veg so as to not run out

The last point was really the hardest and we had to make a few extra trips to the grocery store.

The average was also skewed slightly by the fact that during this 10 day period, we had two deliveries of Alphonso mangoes from India from (banned by the EU just a week later for apparent hygiene reasons).  These are available for only a few weeks per year and are at the peak of ripeness when they arrive, so they need eating almost immediately.  As a result, I got of to a blistering start on day one with a total of 24 portions of fruit and veg consumed!

However, we only had mangoes on three of the ten days and on all others days I still managed to exceed ten portions despite having several meals out in cafes and restaurants, proving that it is possible even under normal circumstances.

What did I eat?

The mix of fruit and veg varied every day but typical items included tomatoes, oranges/clementines, apples, bananas, peppers, grapes, aubergine, pumpkins & squashes, spinach, avocado, carrots, banana, cabbage/kale and of course lots of mango!

I always ate more fruit than vegetables because it is a lot easier to consume fruits in large quantities.  Some people will claim that this is a bad thing because fruits contain sugar, because as I’ve mentioned before I think the notion that we should worry about the sugar in whole fruits is misguided.  Of course, the nutritional density of vegetables, especially leafy greens is higher than many fruits, but the real density of those foods is much lower.  For example, a fairly small apple can weight 80g, but you need a pretty big bowl of leaves to make up the same weight.  Not to mention the fact that I enjoy eating fruits more, and if you enjoy something then you’ll be far more likely to do it.  I like the saying that I recently found from Rowena Morais, that “done is better than perfect”.  Damn right!

Now I agree that the whole 5 a day system is over simplistic and inevitably has its flaws, but the fact is that it got me eating more fruit and veg, and that was a very good thing.

Not only did I eat more fruit and veg than ever before, but the natural side effect of this was that I ate less of the foods that are low in nutrients or downright unhealthy.  You can only eat a certain amount in a day, so if you increase one thing, you’ll naturally cut down on another.  I ate a lot less bread and cereals that I normally use to fill me up, and found that whenever I was hungry I would reach for the fruit or salad first and then only go for the other options if I had run our of fruit and veg or I had already exceeded ten portions.  It was a pretty effortless way to shift to a more healthy balance.

The power of focus

This was fine for ten days and at the end of the challenge I was feeling so good that I wanted to continue, yet on day 11 I was surprised to find that I slipped straight back into my previous habits.

I quickly realised the immense benefit of having a challenge to focus your mind.  During the challenge I found it amazingly easy, and yet the instant it finished it became difficult to achieve.

As the saying goes, old habits die hard, so I decided that I would extend the challenge to 30 days and focus on building a new positive habit.  I have heard the theory many times that it takes 3 to 4 weeks of doing something every day before it starts to become absorbed by the mind as a habit.  Only when it becomes habitual will it be easy to sustain long term.  So I ended the eleventh day with a fruit feast that got me up to ten portions and have been continuing each day since.  As I write this it is day 17 and as my mind is now focussed on the 30 day challenge it has become relatively easy again.

I’ll continue this until it becomes second nature.

What about the cost?

One of the biggest issues with eating a lot of fruit and veg is that it can be quite expensive.  I didn’t keep a track of how much I spent during the challenge compared to our normal groceries, but I do know that it was more.  However, there are a few things that you can do to keep the costs lower.  You can choose cheaper varieties of fruit and veg like bananas, apples, kale and spring greens.  You can shop from cheaper outlets such as the local green grocer or market, which believe it or not are often cheaper than supermarkets.  You can also substitute more expensive processed foods such as crisps, ready meals and take away for fruit and veg.  And of course, while it is good to buy local and organic, you can save a lot of money by being less picky.

Is it worth it?

From my own small experiment I would say that the answer is definitely yes, and the study that triggered this whole challenge provides real data to support it.

The UCL researchers stated that “even seven-a-day was not enough and that 10 would be the optimum number, as the protective effect continued to increase with higher consumption“.  The study’s lead author, Dr Oyinlola Oyebode of UCL’s department of epidemiology and public health, said: “The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die at any age. My advice would be however much you are eating now, eat more.

That sounds like good, solid, simple advice to me.

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