A recent British study confirming that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables does lower the risk of cancer and cardiovascular mortality has recommended that Britons follow Australian Dietary Guidelines rather than the more conservative UK and European standards. While Britons look to Australia for guidance, in practice we do not take our own advice. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that we are eating 30% less fruit and vegetables than we were 15 years ago, placing us at risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and various other lifestyle associated diseases. The low intake of fruit and vegetables across the world is such a problem that in 2011 the World Health Organisation declared it as one of the top ten factors contributing to global mortality.
The Australian Guidelines were drawn up based on a body of international research suggesting links between fruit and vegetable consumption and reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, excess weight gain and various cancers. With small differences accounting for age and sex, they recommend that most Australians should be eating at least five 75g servings of vegetables, and two 150g servings of fruit per day. The British study also concluded that an ideal diet would include at least seven serves of fruit and vegetables per day.
The significance of the British study is that while many of the past studies used subjects who were likely to be health conscious, such as people working in the health industry or recruited via blood donations, the British researchers studied a more representative sample of the population. The researchers in this study collected data over a 12 year period from a nationally representative population of adults aged 35 years and over.
Measured against other factors such as age, smoking status, occupation, activity level, and alcohol intake, the inverse relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality was clear. Subjects who ate one to three servings of fruit and vegetables per day had significantly better survival rates than those who did not eat fruit or vegetables. Survival rates increased as people ate more servings of fruit and vegetables, with those eating seven portions per day showing the highest survival rate. When researchers looked at the comparative benefits of fruit and vegetables, they discovered that although fruit has a positive effect on survival rates, vegetables have a stronger protective function.
In view of their findings, the researchers concluded that the Australian guidelines would be more appropriate than the UK and European advice of only five servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
What is sobering about this study is that over 50% of the people who described their diet as “very healthy” were eating less than five servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Despite our ideal guidelines, one in four Australian adults eat no vegetables on an average day and only 7% of Australian adults eat the recommended five servings of vegetables per day. Kellie-Ann Jolly from the National Heart Foundation describes
the average Australian’s daily intake of fruit and vegetables as “dismal”.
The low intake of fruit and vegetables in the Australian diet is a major health concern, especially when combined with our high intake of energy-dense nutrient-poor food. Curtin University’s Mike Daube claims that fast food has replaced fruit and vegetables as a dietary staple. Just over one-third of the energy that we derive from our food comes from food high in saturated fat and sugar. On average we weigh four kilograms more than we did twenty years ago, and yet we are eating less food overall.
Kids and vegetables
The benefits of healthy eating for children have been long established. In children a high nutrient, fibre-rich diet is important for growth and development while a poor diet can affect motor skills, brain function and overall physical development. Moreover, dietary habits established in childhood influence dietary choices in adolescence through to adulthood.
Despite this knowledge, recent studies reveal that few Australian children consume the recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables. Instead, energy-dense food contributes to 41% of the daily calorie intake in children. These foods contribute to more than 40% of total fat, saturated fat and sugar in children’s diets.
Though 90% of children between the ages of 2 and 7 meet the recommended servings of fruit, fewer than half are eating the recommended intake of vegetables. Amongst children aged 10 to 11 years, only 55% meet the fruit guidelines and only 32% eat enough vegetables.
The health benefits of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables are consistently recognised in international guidelines, and many governments have taken up the responsibility of drawing up national guidelines to encourage healthy eating. The Australian Dietary Guidelines are practical, realistic, and based on scientific study. They are designed to help Australians choose a diet which will improve their quality of life and avoid lifestyle diseases such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as well as provide guidelines to parents to help their children develop healthy eating habits for life.
- Aim for a diet that is rich in fruit, vegetables, including different types and colours, and legumes.
- Most adults should eat a minimum of five 75 gram servings of vegetables and two 150 gram servings of fruit.
- Vegetables are nutrient dense, relatively low in calories and good sources of vitamins, minerals and a range of photo chemicals including carotenoids.
- Choose a selection of different colours, textures and flavours to make eating more enjoyable.
- Vegetables, including legumes, and fruit should be eaten in their whole form to maximise their health benefits.
- Fruit should be eaten fresh and raw. Juice and dried fruit should be rare substitutes.
- Some vegetables are suitable to be eaten raw, while others should be cooked to make them more palatable and digestible.
- Dried legumes should be cooked.
- Some canned or frozen fruits and vegetables can be used as alternatives if they are produced without excess sugar, salt or fat.
- Eat a selection of fruit and vegetables since different types contain different nutrients.