NHS (to American readers - it's the British socialized medicine destroying UK, and coming to destroy your country too now) strongly promotes the idea of eating "5 servings of fruit and vegetables" a day, with which I disagree on so many levels.
Here's a quick summary of the alleged benefits, straight from their website:
- They're packed with vitamins and minerals.
- They can help you to maintain a healthy weight.
- They're an excellent source of fibre and antioxidants.
- They help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
- They taste delicious and there's so much variety to choose from.
- You are extremely unlikely to have vitamin and mineral deficiency, and if you suspect some (or want to get pregnant, have symptoms of anemia etc.), get real multivitamin pills, or supplements of the right kind. Most fruit and vegetables are fairly unimpressive as for their vitamin contents anyway - for all practical purposes most fruits are just water and sugar, and have been selected this way by farmers, as larger and sweeter fruit sells better, and vitamins don't have taste.
- There's absolutely no evidence linking fruit and vegetable consumption to weight - you get stable weight when number of calories taken balances number of calories expended, what's possible on any kind of diet, including a really delicious one based on loads of meat and cheese and chocolate that NHS would not approve of. I'll get back to this point later.
- Fibre doesn't do anything - it just passes through your digestive system and goes right into the toilet. "Antioxidants" are one of those terms that make me rage, as they've been stripped from their original scientific meaning, and turned into pure value judgment, and not even of the right value. Your cells know how to deal with oxidative stress already. That's what they're evolved to do over the last 1.7 billion years. They have plenty of ways to do so. And increasing amount of antioxidants will not help your cells. Meta-analysis of all available data shows clearly that eating more of them doesn't do anything for you, and can even be harmful.
- There's been no proper long term trials of that kind. There's very few proper long term trials of anything related to diet, and those that are performed invariably show that simple diet advice (eat this, don't eat this) doesn't work - and unless your diet is spectacularly wrong you'll be fine as long as you have adequate exercise, decent portion control, and don't smoke.
- As any kid will tell you, fruit and vegetables taste awful - if they were delicious people wouldn't need NHS's bothering about them. Do chocolate and ice cream need NHS campaigns? Obviously not. That's because chocolate and ice cream are tasty, while fruit and vegetables are not, at least not in those ridiculously large amounts.
What I wanted to talk about was the myth that people used to eat enormous amounts of fruit and vegetables - 5 servings a day or more as NHS advices, and that's it's something modern that they do not do so now. Let's look at FAO data, annual consumption per capita of fruit and vegetables, as far back as it goes (that's unfortunately not that far back). I included some particularly fat countries (USA, Mexico), a particularly healthy country (Japan), random countries from Europe (France, Germany, Poland, UK), and totals for Europe and World. For interest of science I'll say I selected countries and criteria before I had a first look at the data, so it's not a biased selection, but feel free to look at others.
Vegetable consumption, 1961 to 2003, increased in all selected countries:
- France - 150kg to 142kg
- Germany - 49kg to 90kg
- Japan - 95kg to 104kg
- Mexico - 25kg to 58kg
- Poland - 91kg to 100kg
- UK - 60kg to 91kg
- USA - 93kg to 123kg
- Europe - 90kg to 117kg
- World - 63kg to 117kg
- France - 53kg to 95kg
- Germany - 79kg to 113kg
- Japan - 29kg to 54kg
- Mexico - 57kg to 120kg
- Poland - 18kg to 47kg
- UK - 55kg to 115kg
- USA - 76kg to 113kg
- Europe - 65kg to 88kg
- World - 38kg to 62kg
- France - 203kg to 237kg (+17%)
- Germany - 128kg to 203kg (+59%)
- Japan - 124kg to 158kg (+27%)
- Mexico - 82kg to 178kg (+117%)
- Poland - 109kg to 147kg (+35%)
- UK - 115kg to 205kg (+79%)
- USA - 169kg to 236kg (+40%)
- Europe - 155kg to 205kg (+32%)
- World - 101kg to 179kg (+77%)
- France - 237kg - 40.1%
- USA - 236kg - 74.1%
- UK - 205kg - 63.8%
- Germany - 203kg - 60.1%
- Mexico - 178kg - 68.1%
- Japan - 158kg - 22.6%
- Poland - 147kg - 47.5%
And it's not like 1961's fruit and vegetable consumptions were unusually low - they were in fact unusually high by historical standards - normally it was impossible to eat any other than those that grew in your region, in harvest time, what all amounted to very very little compared to what people eat now with globalized industrial agriculture.
The take home message: Ignore NHS; eat chocolate, ice cream, beef, cheese, or whatever else you find delicious. In reasonable amounts.