How the ‘5-a-Day Mix’ of Fruits, Vegetables Improves Your Health

Experts encourage people to start out by adding 1 or 2 fruits or vegetables to their daily diet. Westend61/Getty Images

Researchers say a ‘5-a-day mix’ diet of fruits and vegetables can improve your health and help you live…

Experts encourage people to start out by adding 1 or 2 fruits or vegetables to their daily diet. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Researchers say a ‘5-a-day mix' diet of fruits and vegetables can improve your health and help you live longer.
  • They recommend people start by adding 1 or 2 fruits or vegetables a day to their diets.
  • They note that some vegetables and fruits are healthier than others.

There’s no magic recipe for a longer life.

But the recommendation that you should eat 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables daily comes pretty close.

Such “5 a Day” diets are strongly associated with longevity, according to research published today, March 1, in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation

“This amount [of fruits and vegetables] likely offers the most benefit in terms of prevention of major chronic disease and is a relatively achievable intake for the general public,” said Dr. Dong D. Wang, the lead study author and an epidemiologist and nutritionist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Researchers studied diet and mortality among more than 100,000 men and women in the United States over the course of about 3 decades, along with data from similar studies conducted worldwide.

Information on more than 2 million study participants was included.

The authors concluded that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps reduce the risk for the chronic health conditions that are the leading causes of death, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

For example, people who followed a 5-a-day diet had a 13 percent lower risk of death from all causes, a 12 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, a 10 percent lower risk of death from cancer, and a 35 percent lower risk of death from respiratory diseases — compared to those who ate fewer fruits and vegetables.

The right fruits, vegetables

“Fruits and vegetables are naturally packaged sources of nutrients that can be included in most meals and snacks, and they are essential for keeping our hearts and bodies healthy,” said Dr. Anne Thorndike, chair of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“Fad diets come and go, but over the years, research has consistently shown that a diet high in a variety of whole fruits and vegetables leads to better health outcomes,” Renee Puyau, a registered dietitian and director of the Metabolic Kitchen at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told Healthline.

“Multiple daily servings of fruits and veggies are defining features of diets like DASH and Mediterranean, which are consistently ranked highest on the ‘best diets’ lists,” Puyau said. “One of the easiest ways for someone to improve their diet overall is to add a serving of fruits or veggies each day, or even better, to each meal.”

Not all fruits and vegetables are created equal, however.

Researchers found longevity benefits in foods such as green leafy vegetables like spinach, lettuce, and kale, as well as fruit and vegetables rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, berries, and carrots.

Green, leafy vegetables are “folate-rich foods [that] are highly anti-inflammatory, promoting the body’s natural detoxification process and improving mental health,” Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food,” told Healthline.

“Then, you have the nonstarchy vegetables like cucumbers, radish, asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. These are abundant in polyphenols and fiber, which improves gut health and promotes a balanced immune system and mood,” Naidoo added.

Starchy vegetables such as peas, corn, and potatoes weren't associated with decreased risk of death during the study period.

Nor was consumption of fruit juices.

“Our findings do not support the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and federal nutrition assistance programs’ positions on treating all types of fruit and vegetables the same and including juices and potatoes into the fruit and vegetable groups, without considering their potentially differential nutritional properties and health effects,” the study noted.

Still, Courtney Vickery, a dietitian and nutritionist based in Georgia, told Healthline that the federal guidelines remain a helpful tool for getting adequate fruits and vegetables into your diet.

“These guidelines focus on the MyPlate recommendation, which many people find more attainable since it is a plate-by-plate approach,” said Vickery.

“The plate is recommended to be half fruits and/or vegetables, which would help many people achieve the 5 servings per day needed for the benefits mentioned in this study,” Vickery added.

Getting more into your diet

Only about 1 in 10 Americans eat enough fruit and vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Leah Johnston, a Chicago-based dietitian, recommended posting a note or letter magnets on your refrigerator spelling out 5 a Day as a reminder to eat healthier.

“This is the optimal amount, so don't feel bad if you don't make it every single day,” she told Healthline. “At a minimum, try fruit at breakfast and a snack, and a serving of veggies at lunch and dinner as a starting point.”

“For those that typically don't eat fruits and vegetables, it can seem challenging to get to 5 a day,” Sandy Younan, a dietitian with The Dish on Nutrition told Healthline. “However, if you start with at least 1 serving daily, it will get easier to build yourself up to 5 a day.”

Younan recommended several ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet, including:

  • eating an apple, banana, tangerine, or pear as a quick snack between meals
  • snacking on celery and carrot sticks with different dips such as hummus, ranch, or tzatziki sauce
  • buying premixed salads that are easy to serve with little or no preparation
  • adding vegetables into your favorite meals, such as omelets

“If you are not already consuming 5 servings daily, start by adding at least one more serving of either fruit or vegetables until you get to 5,” she said. “You will eventually get to your goal.”

Eat more if you can

The study found no added benefit to eating more than 5 servings daily.

But some nutritionists say that it’s still important to get as many fruits and vegetables into your diet as possible.

“We have known for decades that eating more fruits and vegetables is the key to good health, but these findings help confirm it,” Heather Hanks, a nutritionist based in Plymouth, Michigan, told Healthline.

“The current standard of eating 5 servings per day is a good start for Americans. However, Mediterranean countries — which are known for eating better — eat more than this, and perhaps we should, too,” she said.

“Vegetables should make up the majority of your meals, with meats and other foods used as side dishes or accompaniments,” Hanks added. “The fact that you can increase your lifespan and prevent death simply by eating more fruits and vegetables is astonishing, and there is no reason why people shouldn't strive to eat as many as possible.”