I hear your comment as you read the title of this blog post: Eat seven different vegetables and fruit a day? Surely we should be aiming for five a day? But what you may not realise is that the original ‘5 a Day’ message that was introduced into the UK and elsewhere about 20 years ago as a public health target is just a marketing term. It isn’t actually based on any research that suggests that getting your five a day is some kind of ‘magic bullet’ which reduces risk of ill health and disease. The sad fact is that the majority of the population are still falling well short of consuming 5 portions of vegetables and fruit on a daily basis. Just getting them to ‘5 A Day’ would be an achievement.
As an endurance athlete, you need to pay a lot more attention to your fruit and veg intake than the average person, due to the demands you are making on your body which increases your need for a wide range of nutrients. As a minimum, you should be consuming five portions a day, and at least three of those should be vegetables. But to optimise your performance, recovery and general health, I strongly recommend that you raise the bar and eat at least five portions of vegetables and two of fruit each day. This is the new guideline for the general population that has recently been published by my professional association, the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT), and one that I fully agree with.
The message from BANT isn’t just to eat seven portions of vegetables and fruit a day instead of five. It also includes having more vegetables than fruit in your diet, and eating a range of colours every day. I’d like to explore these points further from the perspective of the endurance athlete:
- Seven portions a day is the minimum to aim for.
The harder you train, the more you need the nutrients found in vegetables and fruit. These include natural sugars, anti-oxidants like vitamins A, C and E, magnesium for energy production, folic acid for red blood cell production, and fibre to support healthy digestive function.
Aim to eat 1-2 fruits as part of breakfast, 3-4 salad vegetables at lunch time, another piece of fruit/portion of dried fruit as a pre-training snack, and 2-3 vegetables with your evening meal. Here’s a typical example from my own diet:
Breakfast: handful of blueberries and raspberries
Lunch: Tomato, avocado, rocket, cucumber
Pre-training snack: banana
Supper: onion, broccoli, carrots
Do make sure that you are eating more vegetables than fruit overall. Many athletes have plenty of fruit in their diet as it helps to fuel training and is convenient to eat, but some fall woefully short on their vegetable intake. You need both for a well-balanced diet. Have additional fruit on your heavier training days. Steaming vegetables rather than boiling them helps to reserve the nutrient content. It’s also fine to use frozen vegetables; the nutrient content may even be higher than in fresh vegetables, depending on age of the latter.
A quick word on juices and smoothies: try to eat most of your vegetables and fruit in their whole form to benefit from the fibre content and prevent the overconsumption of sugar, which can be very high in some commercial juices and smoothies. But I’m all in favour of making your own vegetable-based juices if it helps you to consume more and different vegetables, and I also like fruit as part of a homemade recovery smoothie after a training session or as part of an ‘on the go’ breakfast smoothie.
- Eat a range of different coloured vegetables and fruit each day, and a broad range across the week.
There are five broad colours of vegetables and fruit:
– Red, eg tomatoes
– Green, eg broccoli
– Blue/Purple, eg berries
– White, eg onion
– Yellow/Orange, eg carrots
Each colour is particularly rich in different phytonutrients – chemicals found in plants other than vitamins and minerals – which play different roles in the body such as being anti-inflammatory, protecting cells from damage, helping to balance hormones, supporting the immune system and even protecting against cancer. By having a wide range of colours in your diet, you help to optimise your health through consuming these various phytonutrients, which contribute to:
– Brain health
– Skin health
– Prostate health
– Vascular health
– Eye health
– Heart health
– Reproductive health
CLICK HERE to see a great summary chart from BANT listing the different vegetables that fall under each colour. How many are you regularly eating? Try to get as broad a range as possible in your diet to support both your performance and your health.
Give ‘7 A Day’ and ‘Eat A Rainbow’ a try as part of your nutrition plan; I think you’ll notice a difference.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk