The Power of Ten

24th March 2017

New research suggests that while eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day is good, ten is even better at boosting well-being and reducing the risk of premature death. Is it achievable? Jill Glenn likes to think her diet is veg-heavy and generally healthy (a weakness for chocolate aside) – so what happens when she sets aside ten days in which to make a conscious effort to eat, and count, the good stuff?

Day one doesn’t begin well. A text from my bank advising me of suspicious activity on my account leads to half an hour on the phone to their fraud department at breakfast time. When my partner waves a piece of toast at me and mouths ‘do you want marmalade?’ I’m concentrating too hard on the call to reject the idea. Two spoonsful of Seville Orange Extra Dark is fruit… after a fashion. Can I call it half a portion? No? Shame…

By lunchtime I’ve eaten a nectarine and an apple. Two down; eight to go. Having brought nothing from home, as a result of the cloned card debacle, I find myself driving round in the rain in search of a supermarket with a] parking close to the door and b] a selection of ‘food on the go’ that isn’t reliant purely on sandwiches. It’s an unrewarding experience, but eventually I end up with a tiny individual portion of hummus and carrots, an egg and spinach protein pot and a small superfood salad. The carrots aren’t quite 80g – the official size of a ‘serving’ – but I decide that I can count them with the spinach leaves and tick off another one of my ten a day; the superfood salad is one more. Only six left. I’ve bought baby tomatoes, too; seven of them will make a mid-afternoon snack. When it comes to it, though, I discover that on a wet February afternoon, tomatoes – even pretty ones –just don’t cut the mustard. Mustard might improve them, actually. I put them back in their punnet and eat another apple.

Five left. Dinner provides three and a half (carrots, broccoli, peas and not-quite-enough cabbage). One and a half to go. I reconsider those baby tomatoes as a pre-bed snack. They’re still not doing it for me.

At the end of day one, having fallen at the first hurdle, therefore, I’ve learned the following: It’s going to be almost impossible to get to ten without starting at breakfast. And that making one’s own lunch is (as I already know) much more likely to be healthy and cost-effective than buying pre-packaged portions. And you don’t need an umbrella that way.

Minded to get ahead early, on Day Two I begin with a conveniently overripe avocado mashed onto a piece of toast. I know I’m behind the curve here (avocado? so last year…) but this is the first time I’ve eaten avo in this way at this time of day. Pimped up with some lemon juice and a little grainy seasalt, it’s exceptionally good. I follow it with a serving of blueberries and raspberries, mixed, and three dried apricots. Dried fruit counts in the tally, but, I discover, only one serving a day is permitted, as the sugar content can be excessive. The NHS LiveWell website recommends not eating it between meals, because of its potential to increase tooth decay – though the British Heart Foundation says ‘Swap your mid-morning biscuits for dried fruit’. Of course, at the moment guidelines are all about how to reach five, not ten. Could you argue that doubling the target means you can double the dried fruit? Common sense says not – although I’d venture that if it was that or a packet of Rolos, the apricots would be the wiser choice.

By the end of breakfast, I’m three servings in to today’s ten. Usually, when heading into London to see an exhibition, as I am today, I don’t take food with me, relying on a bought sandwich or some such ‘as a one-off’. But I know, from yesterday, how challenging it is to find a seriously veg-rich lunch on the go, so I pack a plastic container: a chopped carrot (precisely 80g; how convenient); those seven tomatoes; three or four florets of raw cauliflower (also 80g, a surprisingly small portion for the weight) and a few spoons of hummus. I add a couple of tiny slices of parmesan – for its high flavour-to-calorie ratio – and fling an apple in my bag at the last minute. It’s the first occasion on which targeting ten a day has substantially changed what I would ordinarily have done. By early afternoon, I happen to be in the vicinity of the National Theatre, and so I find a corner of their foyer in which to eat. I’m not alone doing this; it’s a veritable picnic area… at least I haven’t brought a hamper, unlike some. If it had been a few degrees warmer I’d have sat by the river – infinitely nicer as a future prospect than being squashed in a café with an over-priced under-vegged sandwich on my plate.

However many fruit and veg you include in your diet, one of the key things to remember, both for your visual interest and for gaining all the nutritional benefits, is to eat a multi-coloured selection: a rainbow plateful. It’s not just about the greens. Fruit and vegetables fall into five colour categories (the others are red, purple/blue, orange and white/brown), each with its own particular set of unique disease-fighting chemicals – phytochemicals – that generate both the vibrant colour and some of the health-giving properties. Variety is very much the spice of life.

By the end of lunch, I’ve eaten seven out of ten servings (including a good range of colours), and am, it must be said, feeling unbearably smug. Dinner – a fish dish – includes a serving of fennel in the recipe; I bulk it out with sugarsnap peas, and a mixed portion of broccoli and cauliflower on the side. Potatoes don’t count, in any form, towards the daily total (although sweet potato is acceptable, and, nutritionists say, worth switching to for its health benefits: packed with vitamin A, it also contains vitamin C, potassium and manganese). However, even discounting the mash, I’ve achieved my ten. And found room for three squares of dark chocolate, with raspberries in it. Every little helps.

Day Three, and we try a different approach for breakfast: the fridge yields some mushrooms – elderly and rather sad, but a portion each, nevertheless – which we transform into the filling for an omelette, along with grilled tomatoes and a few baby salad leaves. It’s tasty, but meagre, as the eggbox proves to have only two smallish eggs in it, so we follow up with a slice of toast topped with a banana and 40g of raspberries each. Three and a half portions done, and it’s not even eight o’clock yet.

It’s a good beginning, but the day goes downhill. A hospital appointment overruns, and lunch, in a local pub, doesn’t happen until gone 3pm. Post-clinic I can barely see (that’s another story) but I can read enough of the menu to know that upping the tally is going to be tough here. I pick a superfood salad to start, and conclude that the relevant ingredients – beetroot, broccoli and sugarsnaps – constitute a portion, maybe even a portion and a half, if I’m desperate. Later, I am desperate, so I decide there were definitely 120g of veg there: One and a half portions it is.

I’ve deliberately picked a main dish that mentions vegetables (most don’t) but when the pan-fried hake arrives, the promised cauliflower is a token presence at best. Eventually I discover that, along with the roasted florets, there are a few little heaps of cauli purée lurking underneath the unnecessary slice of iberico ham. It’s a portion, just. And we’ve ordered a side dish of peas and spring greens each, instead of one to share, so by the end I’ve added, say, three and a half servings, making seven in total. Seven, sadly, is where it stops. Lunch proves so filling that we don’t eat again. I can’t even face an apple or some strawberries. Or baby tomatoes. Reluctantly, despite its encouraging start, I have to count day three as a fail.

Day Four starts with fruit again: banana and strawberry sliced onto toast; 80g of blueberries eaten loose. Two portions in total. This is all very well, but expert nutritional guidance already suggests that vegetables are four times healthier than fruit. Even before the idea of ten a day was mooted, there was a growing concensus that five vegetables plus two portions of fruit would be a good target. I’m trying to keep roughly that ratio – three fruit, seven veg, say – and already I can see that too much fruit at the front end of the day means you can’t rely on easy snacking stuff like apples, bananas or clementines later. I’m getting to understand why people start their morning with savoury.

For lunch I turn again to chopped raw vegetables, dipped into hummus: yes, I know, I know: there’s a pattern emerging here. It’s my staple diet. It may be getting repetitive, but 80g each of mangetout, carrot, red pepper and tomatoes, plus a large kiwi fruit for dessert, give me a five-serving lunch, without even counting the chickpeas in the hummus. Total so far: seven.

I’ve made an extra effort early in the day, because dinner is to be a quick curry at a local Indian restaurant, slotted into time not really available for it. Again, I have to skew my ordering, but by the time I’ve eaten my share of a main course Vegetable Dhansak, and sides of Cauliflower Bhajee and Spinach Dhal (in which, of course, the pulses also count towards the daily total), I’m pretty confident that I’ve reached my ten.

Day Five (when I’ve recognised the need to plan but done little about it) delivers banana, kiwi and strawberry for breakfast again, topped with yogurt and seeds. The banana is on the small side, so I reckon that’s a total of only two and a half. Three dried apricots at noon takes me to three and a half.

I’d like to say I’m feeling better as a result of all this extra fruit and veg… but I’m full of cold and not very nice to know. Working from home for the day – to keep my germs to myself – gives me the opportunity to throw together a quick soup for lunch. It uses up a random selection of vegetables, made both flavoursome and medicinal with excessive amounts of onion and chilli, and delivers another three servings. Six and a half down.

Dinner, by bad planning – or good, depending on your point of view – is another Indian meal. The strong emphasis here on vegetarian food makes choosing easy. By the time I’ve eaten lentils, okra, aubergine and cauliflower, plus onions and tomatoes in the various sauce bases, I’ve reached ten. I think.

No; I more than think. I have faith. While I started this regime obsessing over just what constitutes 80g, having weighted plenty of raw stuff at home, I’m reasonably sure I can identify a cooked portion now. And if I think I’ve had ten, and it’s actually only nine… well, it’s still an improvement on five. Chill. Or chilli.

Saturday finds me marching through London in support of the NHS. I take this as a good reason to have a substantial breakfast, and, via the medium of mushroom and tomato omelette and half an avocado on toast, clock up three portions before I leave the house. Lunch, eaten in Tavistock Square, is a home-made sandwich with, I’m ashamed to say, only some lettuce as token greenery. In Parliament Square I make quick work of an apple and a banana. At the station home I devour half a chocolate orange brownie; I doubt there’s 80g in there, though. A friend cooks for us in the evening: along with a chicken dish there are generous servings of both spinach and courgettes; dessert is pear and ginger frangipane. I count the pear in my tally. Overall, the day comes in at nearly eight out of ten. I’m relaxed about it.

Friends aware of my current project keep suggesting that I make smoothies. There’s minimal waste; all the nutritional goodness is retained – and it’s an excellent way to veg up your breakfast. I can see the logic (much as I like kale, say, I can’t see myself eating it cooked or raw in an identifiable format before lunchtime)… but am ashamed to admit that I have been daunted (read: defeated) by the Nutri Ninja blending beast I was so desperate to buy a year ago, and which has been gathering dust on the worksurface ever since.

On Sunday morning (Day Seven, dossier-keepers), I approach it cautiously and coax it into life. And hey! If you follow a recipe and do just as it says, it works perfectly. Who knew? The Popeye Smoothie takes about five minutes to make, features spinach (naturally), along with dates and celery and all manner of other good things… tastes delicious, and provides two servings.

Mid-morning: dried apricots for a quick burst of sweetness. Lunch: leftover soup, plus stray fridge remnants with cucumber and carrots; by the end, a further four and a half portions racks the running total up to seven and a half. The evening meal – Paprika Pork, served with roasted red peppers, a butterbean stew that includes both onion and tomatoes, and garden peas – adds three more. For the first time we’ve exceeded the target… admittedly, by only half a serving, but even so.

As I head in to week two, I’m pretty confident. My cold has cleared far more quickly than usual, and I’m really feeling well. On the Monday I make the same Popeye Smoothie for breakfast (just for practice…), snack on banana, and assemble a mixed salad for lunch, concluding with an apple. Six portions ticked off so far. Dinner gives me four. Total: ten.

On Tuesday, Day Nine, I vary the smoothie (there’s no stopping me now): strawberries instead of kiwi, kale instead of spinach etc. It’s a strange colour – ‘sludge’ would describe it – but if you close your eyes it tastes fine. Again, I snack on banana, and have a mixed salad pot, with extra tomatoes and cucumber and a decent dollop of cottage cheese for lunch. I’m up to seven servings, maybe even seven and a half – and dinner, which includes cabbage, carrots and runner beans, brings the count to at least ten.

The final day of my trial also totals ten, via another smoothie (I’m in love with my Ninja now: what was I so nervous about?), featuring kiwi and kale, apple and carrot and dates; a snack of dried apricots; lunch of a home-made roasted cauli/carrot/onion mix, served with lentils and tomatoes that provides five servings for one meal alone, and a Thai-style vegetarian dinner.

I think I have this nailed. Ten a day isn’t just about ‘eating more’ vegetables and fruit; it’s about making a fundamental change to your whole dietary outlook. If you can keep it forefront of your mind, though, it’s not hard…

…but it’s not all sweetness and light. I’m all for eating locally and seasonally – at least in theory – but that means there are long periods of the year in which apples and pears are the only things in the fruit bowl, for example. And while I enjoy turnip, swede and the like, you can have too much of a good thing. To ramp up the variety you have to be prepared to justify some food miles from time to time. You need to be able to afford fresh vegetables and fruit, and I’m aware that it’s a privilege not to have to worry about the cost. You have to have time to shop fresh, and energy, and vision. And, crucially, you need to be convinced that it’s the right thing to do. It’s a sad fact that two thirds of adults don’t eat the current recommended minimum of five a day – and Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, fears that adding pressure to consume even more creates an unrealistic expectation and will drive people away. For me, it’s been the opposite. Targeting more has been very motivating, and, overall, I’m very happy with the experience. It’s been challenging (particularly keeping a food diary to share); it’s changed my perception of what I thought I was eating, but it’s given me lots of joy. And I’ve certainly had less chocolate. I wanted to make a joke here, about that being the downside – but, to be honest, I haven’t really missed it...

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