By now, everyone is pretty familiar with the concept of getting our "five a day." Variations on the theme have been used in many countries as part of health initiatives, and it's become a goal post for many on a mission to eat better. But can we get more specific? Is it just any five, or is there an optimal ratio of fruits to veggies we should be focusing on?
Recent research published by the American Heart Association in their journal Circulation suggests that yes, we can.
Getting those five servings in the form of two fruits plus three vegetables is the ideal mix for a longer life, according to research led by Dong D. Wang, M.D., Sc.D., a public health researcher and nutritionist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Evidence for eating more fruits and vegetables abound, especially for supporting heart and brain health. And in order to draw this specific conclusion, the research team used data from a total of 28 global studies-including two major data sets from the U.S. involving more than 100,000 adults each, both of which included up to 30 years of follow-up with participants.
"Our analysis in the two cohorts of U.S. men and women yielded results similar to those from 26 cohorts around the world," says Wang, "which supports the biological plausibility of our findings and suggests these findings can be applied to broader populations."
The meta-analysis suggested that, generally, eating those suggested five a day in the first place was associated with the lowest risk of mortality overall-but the greatest longevity was found in cases where those five servings were broken down into two daily servings of fruit and three daily servings of vegetables.
There is a limitation on this research, however, as the analysis is not able to prove that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between eating fruits and veggies and mortality risk.
The American Heart Association recommends filling at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal," said Anne Thorndike, M.D., MPH, chair of the American Heart Association's nutrition committee. "This research provides strong evidence for the lifelong benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and suggests a goal amount to consume daily for ideal health."
In addition to calling out this ideal ratio, the study also pointed toward particular types of fruits and vegetables that were more or less so associated with longevity-and they're not all that surprising.
"We also found that not all fruits and vegetables offer the same degree of benefit," explained Wang, "even though current dietary recommendations generally treat all types of fruits and vegetables, including starchy vegetables, fruit juices and potatoes, the same."
Foods like peas, corn, fruit juices and potatoes, were not necessarily associated with increased longevity. By contrast, foods like green leafy vegetables and those rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C were found to show longevity benefits more clearly. Specifically, the study pointed to spinach, lettuce, kale, citrus fruits, berries, and carrots as examples.
Making sure you're truly getting your five a day is a perfect place to get started, but optimizing even within that simple habit by trying to focus on three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit from nutrient-dense options like leafy greens and citrus fruits may help promote longevity.
"Fruits and vegetables are naturally packaged sources of nutrients that can be included in most meals and snacks," said Thorndike, "and they are essential for keeping our hearts and bodies healthy."
If you find you struggle with getting your ideal plates in, consider focusing on adding more vegetables to your breakfast routine so you start your day with a nutrition win.
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