How many fruits and vegetables do we really need?

Here are the numbers to hit and some ways to sneak more fruits and vegetables into your diet.

We often talk about how diets rich in fruits and vegetables are good for your health. But how much do you need to average per day to reap real rewards? An analysis from Harvard indicates that a total of five servings per day of fruits and vegetables offers the strongest health benefits.

About the study

The research, published online March 1, 2021, by the journal Circulationpooled self-reported health and diet information from dozens of studies from around the world, which included about two million people who were followed up to 30 years.

Compared with people who said they ate just two servings of fruits or vegetables each day, people who ate five servings per day had

  • a 13% lower risk of death from any cause
  • a 12% lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke
  • a 10% lower risk of death from cancer
  • A 35% lower risk of death from respiratory disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Fruits and vegetables are major sources of several nutrients that are strongly linked to good health, particularly the health of the heart and blood vessels: potassium, magnesium, fiber, and polyphenols.” [antioxidant plant compounds],” explains Dr. Daniel Wang, lead author on the study and a member of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Your daily goals

The most effective combination of fruits and vegetables among study participants was two servings of fruits plus three servings of vegetables per day, for a total of five servings daily.

The biggest health benefits came from eating leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach) and fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C and beta carotene (citrus, berries, carrots). “These are primary sources of antioxidants that may play a role in preventing cancer,” Dr. Wang says.

Interestingly, eating more than five servings of fruits or vegetables per day didn’t seem to provide additional benefit in lowering the risk of death. Neither did eating starchy vegetables like peas, corn, or potatoes, or drinking fruit juices.

Also, understand that we’re talking about how much you eat on average. If during any particular day you have no fruit and vegetables, that’s fine: you won’t keel over. You can add a little more than usual on other days to raise your average for the week.

And you don’t need to make major changes to your typical meals: just minor changes. For example, breakfast could be a bowl of cereal with some blueberries, or perhaps eggs and sautéed tomatoes, onions, and spinach.

Lunch could be a salad with your favorite fruits and vegetables (perhaps kale and spinach salad with grapefruit chunks, red peppers, carrots, and pine nuts), a cup of yogurt with strawberries, or a smoothie with kale and mango.

At dinner, include a side salad or a large side of vegetables such as steamed broccoli or yellow squash and zucchini. If you haven’t had a chance to eat enough vegetables throughout the day, make your main meal a large salad with lots of colorful vegetables and some chunks of protein, such as grilled chicken or fish.

For dessert: fresh or frozen fruit is a delicious and healthy treat, especially with a dab of frozen yogurt.

Squeezing in five servings per day

If five servings per day is the goal, how much, exactly, is a serving? We spell that out for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in the table below (see “Fruit and vegetable servings”).

This can guide you in planning meals that include your favorites. Aim for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to get the best mix of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients in your personalized five-a-day plan.

Fruit and vegetable servings

Fruit (and serving size)

Apple (1 fruit)

Apricots (1 fresh, 1/2 cup canned. or 5 dried)

Avocado (1/2 fruit or 1/2 cup)

Banana (1 fruit)

Blueberries (1/2 cup fresh, frozen, or canned)

Cantaloupe (1/4 melon)

Grapefruit (1/2 fruit)

Grapes (1/2 cup)

Orange (1)

Peaches or plums (1 fresh or 1/2 cup canned)

Pear (1 fruit)

Prunes or dried plums (6 prunes or 1/4 cup)

Raisins (1 ounce)

Strawberries (1/2 cup fresh, frozen, or canned)

Vegetable (and serving size)

Broccoli (1/2 cup)

Brussels sprouts (1/2 cup)

Cabbage (1/2 cup)

Carrot juice (2–3 ounces)

Carrots (1/2 cup cooked, 1/2 raw carrot, or 2–4 sticks)

Cauliflower (1/2 cup)

Celery (2–3 sticks)

Corn (1 ear or 1/2 cup frozen or canned)

Eggplant (1/2 cup)

Kale, mustard greens, or chard (1/2 cup)

Lettuce (1 cup iceberg, leaf, romaine)

Mixed or stir-fry vegetables (1/2 cup)

Onion (1 slice)

Peppers (3 slices green, yellow, or red)

Salsa, picante or taco sauce (1/4 cup)

Spinach (1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw)

Squash, dark orange (winter) (1/2 cup)

Summer squash or zucchini (1/2 cup)

String beans (1/2 cup)

Tomato or V-8 juice (small glass)

Tomatoes (2 slices)

Tomato sauce (1/2 cup)

Vegetable soup (1 cup)

Yams or sweet potatoes (1/2 cup)

Source: CirculationMarch 14, 2021 (published online ahead of print).

Image: © MEDITERRANEAN/Getty Images

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