We’ve all heard about the health benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Filling up on these colorful and nutrient-rich foods can help lower the risk of many health conditions, including heart disease and some cancers that remain leading causes of death. But how much is enough to reap the benefits?
New research, published in Circulation, pooled together data representing nearly 2 million adults worldwide and found that eating five servings – two of fruit and three of vegetables – a day appears to be the magic number and is associated with living longer.
In fact, compared with those who consumed just two servings of fruits and vegetables a day, people who said they ate five servings a day – two of which are fruits and three are vegetables – had a 13% lower chance of dying of any cause, a 12% lower chance of dying from heart disease or stroke, a 10% lower likelihood of dying from cancer and a 35% lower risk of death from respiratory disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Interestingly, while eating five daily servings of fruits and vegetables was associated with the lowest risk of death, eating more than this didn’t result in any additional health improvements.
The study helps to identify the optimal amount of fruits and vegetables that people should aim for and, according to authors, further validates the longstanding five-a-day public health message. “This amount likely offers the most benefit in terms of prevention of major chronic disease and is a relatively achievable intake for the general public,” said study author Dong D. Wang, MD, ScD, of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in a news release.
Researchers analyzed data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, which together included more than 100,000 adults who did not have cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes at the start of the studies. They were followed for up to 30 years; participants completed questionnaires about dietary choices every two to four years. The researchers also pooled data on fruit and vegetable intake and death from 26 studies that included people from nearly 30 countries in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.
The combined analyses yielded similar findings, which “supports the biological plausibility of our findings and suggests these findings can be applied to broader populations,” Wang said.
Not all fruits and vegetables are created equal
While many dietary guidelines generally treat all types of fruits and vegetables the same, researchers found that certain fruits and vegetables carry less health benefits than others.
For example, starchy vegetables, which include corn, peas and potatoes, were not found to be associated with longer life. Similarly, fruit juices did not correlate with a lower likelihood of death. Whereas green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, lettuce, citrus fruits, berries, and carrots and others known to be high in beta carotene and vitamin C, were good.
Room for improvement
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, very few Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day, which we know can put them at risk for diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. A study published in 2017 found that only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits or vegetables.
The current study is limited to participants’ self-report of eating habits, and it can show only a relationship between fruits and vegetables and the risk of dying over a certain period of time.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association.
For more information, visit CardioSmart.org/HealthyLiving.