Is it Better to Eat 5 or 15 Servings of Fruits and Vegetables every Day?

What’s the number one piece of nutritional advice given out in the media, by friends, colleagues, and nutrition professionals?  Eat more fruits and vegetables! 

 Is it better for you to consume 5 fruit and vegetable servings/day or 15 servings/day?

Is it better for you to consume 5 fruit and vegetable servings/day or 15 servings/day?

You want to have more energy: Eat more fruits and vegetables!  You want to lose weight: Eat more fruits and vegetables!  You want to be healthier: Eat more fruits and vegetables!  You want clearer skin: Eat more fruits and vegetables!  Do you want to live longer: Eat more fruits and vegetables! 

Apparently, there is nothing that eating more fruits and vegetables cannot cure.  Personally, I have become exhausted by the relentlessness of the “eat more fruits and vegetables” mantra.  Incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet is great advice but I feel that we put way too much stock into this advice and as a result are subjected to hundreds of “healthy” vegetable based recipes and recommendations.  Many of us “fruit and vegetable outsiders” are ashamed of our own eating habits and are lead to believe that we are eating quite poorly based upon the advice we see and receive on a day-to-day basis.  Aside from my own dietary guilt and shame I have often wondered whether focusing on eating so many fruits and vegetables is actually beneficial to your health.  I am not a fruit and vegetable hater, rather, I am more interested in understanding what fruits and vegetables CAN DO for your health rather than focusing on what we are LEAD TO BELIEVE they can do. 

If we are supposed to be consuming more fruits and vegetables, how many should we be consuming?  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) promotes eating more fruits and vegetables in numerous ways and one of their most notable campaigns suggests we eat “5 a Day”.  It turns out their advice to eat 5 combined servings of fruits and vegetables is spot on. 

The recommendation to eat more fruits and vegetables is beneficial to our health if we are currently eating less than 5 servings/day.  However, eating more than five servings of fruits and veggies/day provides essentially no return on investment 1.  A recent meta-analysis of 16 research studies that included a staggering 833,234 individuals found that eating one fruit and vegetable serving/day was more beneficial than 0, 2 was more beneficial than 1, 3 was more beneficial than 2, 4 was more beneficial than 3, and 5 was more beneficial than 4.  However, that’s where your return on investment ends!  Consuming more than 5 servings of fruits and vegetables/day provided no further protection against your risk of mortality.  From this very large study the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if you eat 5 servings/day or 15 servings/day your likelihood of dying prematurely is identical.

 The risk of mortality does not further decrease after you have reached 5 fruit and vegetable servings/day (1).  Note: it is better to be further away from 1 on this graph.

The risk of mortality does not further decrease after you have reached 5 fruit and vegetable servings/day (1).  Note: it is better to be further away from 1 on this graph.

We are lead to believe, and we want to believe, that eating fruits and vegetables in large quantities will allow us to lead healthier, more productive, longer lives.  We have become a nation obsessed with eating kale and have found creative ways to make its taste tolerable.  My fear is that all of this fruit and vegetable madness is alienating everyone who cannot afford or cannot tolerate eating kale salads and sides of edamame.  As nutrition professionals, we are missing out on reaching all of those folks who want to eat healthy but are not inclined to drastically change their diets to one consisting primarily of fruits and vegetables.

Eating fruits and vegetables is important to your health, but eating endless amounts of them is not necessarily a cure-all.  Of course, if you already eat more than 5 servings/day there is no reason to change that, but if you are looking for a small way to improve your health, increasing your intake to 5 servings/day is a good place to start.

 So, the answer to the question of whether it is better to eat 5/day or 15/day is clear.  Focus on the attaining at least 5 servings/day, not 15.

 

Todd M. Weber, PhD, MS, RD

 

References:

  1. Wang X, Ouyang Y, Liu J, et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Bmj. 2014;349:g4490.