Eat your vegetables (like we told you)


So Mom was right. And Granny. And all our elders who urged us to eat our vegetables. Spinach makes you strong like Popeye, they said. Carrots help you see in the dark. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Fruits & Veggies is the name of a ska/punk band from Durban, South Africa

Fruits & Veggies are what you should eat – and the name of a ska/punk band from Durban, South Africa

Turns out it was all basically true. A British study in a respected medical journal has shown that eating fresh vegetables and fruit reduces the risk of death from cancer, heart disease and other health conditions. So significantly that it cuts the risk of dying by as much as 42%.

It also turns out this ageold advice wasn’t exaggerated. Forget about the famous 5 per day – 7 is the minimum number of portions of fresh fruit and vegetables it’s best to eat daily, according to the new study published in Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. The researchers advise that ideally we should eat 10 portions of fresh fruit and vegetables each day to up our chances of living long.

This study showed that vegetables are healthier than fruit. Well, duh – it was our greens that we were exhorted to eat in our youth. The University College London researchers concluded that canned fruits and veggies are actually bad for you, while juice has no effect at all. No surprises there either: I was never told I couldn’t leave the dinner table until I finished my OJ. It was all about broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Organisations like Canada's Louis Bonduelle Foundation have been vindicated for promoting the growing and eating of vegetables.

Organisations like Canada’s Louis Bonduelle Foundation have been vindicated for promoting the growing and eating of vegetables.

Of course the researchers made sure to invoke the statistician’s caveat in publishing their findings: correlation doesn’t imply causation. Still they concluded that “a robust inverse association exists between fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality”.

We all know that eating fruit and vegetables is healthy, but the size of the effect is staggering. The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die at any age. Vegetables have a larger effect than fruit, but fruit still makes a real difference. If you’re happy to snack on carrots or other vegetables, then that is a great choice but if you fancy something sweeter, a banana or any fruit will also do you good. Whatever your starting point, it is always worth eating more fruit and vegetables. In our study even those eating one to three portions had a significantly lower risk than those eating less than one.

– Dr Oyinlola Oyebode of University College London’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, lead author of the study

Of course, like most research models, this study has its flaws. Researchers didn’t personally observe the eating habits of more than 65,000 people 24/7 for 12 years. They relied on what people claimed to have eaten. The gold standard in epidemiological research is the Randomised Control Trial – but how would you make convincing vegetable placebos for the control group? And it seems unethical to deny anyone their daily dose of veggies, even if it’s in the name of medical research.

As with many basic human rights, the right to eat healthily is affected by economics. Implementing these research findings is constrained by the high cost of fresh vegetables and fruit. Since the global recession, poor people are reportedly eating even less of this vital part of a healthy diet. There are also worries about the chemicals and hormones often used in farming, as well as concerns over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The new study didn’t differentiate between organic and non-organically grown vegetables and fruits.

photo from

Advice to parents in booklet on HabEat study

Still, the findings on the “protective effect” of fresh veggies and fruits are very convincing, and soon after this study was published another study on healthy eating was unveiled. This one focused on children’s eating habits. It concluded that the most important contribution to healthy eating would be to teach children to enjoy vegetables and fruits from the earliest possible age. It seems there’s now a need for role models to encourage children and youth to appreciate this healthy food. A big ask given that for them, there is nothing cool about vegetables.

  Longer breastfeeding was associated with higher frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption in later childhood.

  Introducing a variety of pureed vegetables at the beginning of the complementary feeding period facilitates the acceptance of novel vegetables in the short and medium term.

  Repeatedly giving a novel vegetable is sufficient for increasing its consumption even in children who are ‘picky’ about food. However, giving already known vegetables repeatedly to kids between 3 and 6 is not efficient for increasing their consumption.

  It is difficult to increase intake of an already familiar vegetable in older children (3 to 6). One strategy that seems to help is to let the child choose between two vegetables.

  As early as 3 years of age, if a snack is offered before a meal, or if palatable foods are available after a meal, some children increase their total energy intake. This could lead over time to the child becoming overweight.

– findings of the HabEat project, a multidisciplinary study by 11 partner organizations from 5 European countries that followed the eating habits of children aged 6 months to 6 years from 2011-2014

So where am I going with this? I’m thinking there’s an opportunity for older people here. Not to say I told you so – although that’s tempting. After all, we were mocked and now we’ve been vindicated for our endless exhortations for everyone to eat their vegetables. One news report on the health-giving properties of veg and fruit proclaimed that, “In matters of healthy diet, then, it seems that the oldest advice is probably the best.”

But this is no time for smugness. Now that the powers of fresh vegetables and fruit have been proven, now that we know that more is better, I’m starting to feel rather evangelical about this cause. Maybe it’s incumbent on us, as pro-veg veterans, to encourage younger people to enjoy vegetarian food, especially children. Since we elders are the ones who’ve been extolling the virtues of veg, perhaps we should be the vanguard of a drive to market veg-loving to the next generations.

We can also steer people, especially parents and teachers, away from using threats and promises of sweets as rewards for forced vegetable eating. Not only can lifespans be shortened through negative views of veggies, psychologists warn that such coercion can lead to compulsive eating and obesity.

Maybe we should be cooking and sourcing tasty veg and fruit dishes that make it a pleasure to clock up 10 daily life-extending portions. Or maybe not. A friend of mine’s dad lived until – to use a fruity metaphor – the ripe old age of 96. They say he passed away with a smile on his face while eating a bowl of ice cream. Would it have been better if he had died while crunching a carrot?

Member of Fruits & Veggies doing what the band's name says.

Carrot crunching by Fruits and Veggies band member Kevin Goss-Ross


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