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Stephen Jardine: Seven-a-day is pie in the sky

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage

By my reckoning, just three months in, we are already on our third health food scare of 2014.

So far this year we’ve discovered sugar is the root of evil and margarine isn’t better for you than butter. In fact it’s the other way around.

As if all that wasn’t enough to think about, this week we learned our five-a-day of fruit and veg is no longer enough. Instead, we should be eating at least seven portions a day if we want to live longer.

The study of 65,000 people showed risk of death from any cause was reduced by 42 per cent when seven or more portions of fruit and veg formed part of the daily diet. Researchers said the effect on health was “staggering” with mortality decreasing as consumption increased.

So the lesson we all have to learn is obvious. Except it’s not that simple.

As we’ve moved from a society that cooked from scratch every day to one dependant on ready meals, the amount of fruit and veg in our diet has declined.

For many people, eating five-a-day is still an aim rather than a reality and the risk from this latest news is they may become discouraged and give up trying.

This week I kept a food diary to measure my fruit and veg consumption and the results were sobering.

Some days were better than others but on average I was only just meeting the five-a-day target and seven-a-day simply never happened.

The government knows the scale of the challenge which is probably why, despite the new survey, the official healthy eating advice continues to be based around five-a-day. The focus is on getting everyone to that point before we set more ambitious targets.

To move things forward, simply lecturing people is not enough. Instead, intervention in the market place will be required. For a family on a low income, achieving a diet including seven portions of fruit and veg each day is going to involve change and difficult choices. One estimate suggested the additional cost to them could be up to £1,500 a year.

To make that shift easier, the government may need to look at taxing sugar-rich foods and ring-fencing the income generated to subsidise the cost of fruit and vegetables and provide vouchers as in the US. In the meantime, to make things simple, the best advice seems to be to remember the lessons learned feeding fussy kids.

In other words, pasta sauces can provide the hiding places for masses of chopped vegetables. Onions can be sneaked into most meals and soup provides lots of scope for packing in the vegetables.

Seven-a-day may be better and ten-a-day may be best but we also need to be realistic. Five-a-day resonates with people and is now well established as mantra we can follow. Until we reach that goal, anything is else is just vegetable pie in the sky.

 

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