A piece by guest-blogger and BBC colleague Jean Mackenzie on what happens when we double our recommended daily allowance of fruit and vegetables.
I like vegetables, I like fruit, and I eat them each day without thinking. But I was ill prepared for the news I received on April 1. Apparently the five portions that the government recommends we eat every day was not enough. Nor was seven. In fact, according to a group of researchers at a London university, ten was the ideal daily amount.
“What?” we squeaked as we sat in our editorial meeting that morning. We felt sure that this was one of our newspapers’ more ridiculous April Fools’ Day jokes. “Who on earth eats ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and how is that even possible?” we asked before discarding another ‘academic report’ into the dustbin of news.
But days later I still could not shake this headline. I had suddenly realised that for a “health-conscious” person there was an alarming lack of vegetables in my diet. Okay, I’m no food saint; mainly because I adore food. I’m what you might call a “foodie”. There’s cheese, for example: the greatest food ever created. Then there are all the things that cheese helps to make just so delicious, pizza being at the top of that list. Red wine also plays a rather larger role in my diet than I’d like to admit.
But bad habits aside, I do watch what I eat and I have taught myself about nutrition. I like to eat a good dose of protein and try to limit the amount of sugar I consume. On a good week it’s omelette for breakfast, and soups and salads for lunch. Dinner will always involve vegetables in some form, and I snack on almonds and yoghurt. But even with this “healthy” diet, I realised, to my horror, I was only ever getting about three portions of vegetables a day. How had I never noticed?
So I decided to put this new finding to the test. I wasn’t expecting life-changing consequences, but I was curious. What impact would over-indulging on vegetables have on my weight? Would I feel better for it? And what would the effect on my skin and my bank balance be? Now it’s important to note that this was not a diet. I allowed myself to eat and drink whatever I wanted, so long as I got my ten portions. But, I had worked out that to make it possible I’d need to eat roughly two portions for breakfast, three for lunch and three for dinner. The other two could come from snacks.
I started enthusiastic; excited about what lay before me: a kitchen table piled high with food as brightly coloured as the Ocado van it arrived in.
But this enthusiasm was short-lived. My breakfast of scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and cherry tomatoes with some blueberries on the side was not the perfect Monday morning start I’d envisaged. By the time I’d finished my 14th half cherry tomato (to make up the seven required for a portion) I couldn’t stomach the half punnet of blueberries. I took them with me while I applied my make up for the day but by the time I had to leave the house I’d barely made a dent. They had to be downed like a shot of tequila on a Friday night as I stood by the sink waiting to clean my teeth. This false start plagued me throughout the day. I’d eaten too much too soon and I just got fuller. I couldn’t contemplate the bread that came with my roasted vegetable salad at lunch;
my afternoon tangerines were forced down at 5 o clock; and when dinner rolled around I decided to replace my chicken and three portions of vegetables, with just three portions of vegetables, crudité-style.
By the time got into bed, bloated and full, I’d learnt my first and most important lesson of the week. I was not going to be able to eat what I wanted because ten portions of fruit and vegetables doesn’t leave room for a lot else. Well at least I was going to lose weight, right? A week eating just vegetables had to do something I thought. But it wasn’t that easy, because life doesn’t allow you to just eat vegetables, certainly not my slight chaotic, shift-working life, with a penchant for socialising.
So Monday wasn’t the only day I found myself over-eating; forcing down food when not remotely hungry, because sometimes I couldn’t eat vegetables, or frankly I didn’t want to. The sensation of feeling hungry quickly became a thing of the past, and by mid-week I had forgotten what it felt like to want food. I had also become accustomed to permanent bloating; my stomach felt like it was carrying a balloon full of water.
But things were improving. I was finding useful windows to slip in the odd portion, like blueberries before my morning shower. Genius. Exercise helped too because it made room for more food, thereby easing the stuffed-ness. The days I cycled into work were better. Thursday came and, for the first time, I starting to see some benefits. I was working a torturous 12 hour shift, which needed good vegetable planning, but with the right plastic container, I was confident.
Seven hours in, which is when I would usually be losing the will to live, I suddenly realised that I was awake. I didn’t feel groggy, deprived of movement, and fuzzy-headed from staring at a screen. I wasn’t desperately scouring the newsroom for a quick biscuit fix. I felt bloody brilliant: I was alert and had energy. Someone at work even told me my eyes were sparkling. Now it might be a little far-fetched to put that down to the sugar snaps, maybe it’s just my eyes (or at least I can hope), but what was certain was that at no point this week had I felt tired or lethargic.
But as I met a friend for dinner and tried to order my first meal out, I was quickly brought down a notch. We went to a bar which just so happens to serve some of the best pizzas in London. However it turns out there aren’t that many vegetables in pizza. So while my friend tucked into his, I opted for a pea and watercress salad, and bumped up my quota with an avocado and pesto dip. The next bit surprised me, because although I felt aggrieved, it was only momentary. The food I was served was delicious, and because I hadn’t denied myself pizza because of a diet, but because I needed to eat a few more vegetables, I didn’t actually feel deprived. Instead I’d made a healthier choice that was (nearly) as yummy, and felt better for it.
This was my next lesson: forcing yourself to eat a lot of vegetables cuts out the slack in your diet without you ever feeling resentful, because no-one is telling you can’t have the pizza. Yes you must have vegetables, but you could have the pizza too, you’ve decided not to because then you’d be too full. It’s been your CHOICE, and it’s very hard to get annoyed by something you’ve chosen to do.
But after this epiphany came the crash. The previous night’s wine sat uncomfortably in my bloated stomach. I was hung over and was fed up. I also had the day off work and so had made plans to meet friends for both lunch and dinner. Now if one meal out is hard, then two meals out plus a hangover is nearly impossible. I did my best but by the time dinner at a Thai restaurant rolled around, the Penang curry won out over the steamed broccoli and bamboo shoots alternative.
I was only two portions down so I wasn’t worried. “That’s a mere pepper”, I thought. “I can sort this wobble out in no time”. And that’s how I found myself standing in my pyjamas at 1am, tipsy, tired and stuffed, holding a pepper and looking at it as if it were my primary school nemesis. That was before the sane voice in my head took over. “Put the pepper down” it shouted. “Close the fridge and go to bed, no-one is going to die if you do not do this”. And that is what I did. I relinquished the vegetable and I chose sleep. It was day five and I had failed; failed at had what seemed like such a simple task.
I wasn’t deterred and I ploughed through the weekend with determination. Okay, Saturday night may have involved me actually going through with the weird 1am pepper-pyjama ritual (I wasn’t ready to fail twice) but there were no more slip ups, even though by Sunday evening I was going through the motions and preparing to whoop with joy.
So would I advocate eating ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day? No, of course not. It’s not impossible and if you live a structured life, plan your meals and don’t eat out too much then it might be sustainable. But even if you adore vegetables, it’s not very fun. You won’t be able to eat much else and you will have to succumb to the occasional torturous midnight feast.
The week was hard; a lot harder than I’d anticipated. The hardest part was eating against my appetite; that part I despised. But it did make me realise that with not much effort I can increase the number of portions I’m currently eating. I will need to make certain choices to meet that, but we make food choices every day for all sorts of nutritional reasons. I hope to replace some of my snacks with fruit and vegetables. On days when I’m running low I will try to choose the salad over the pizza, and not to achieve a certain physic, but because I know it’s good for me. Because sadly, for all my hard work, the scales read the same at the end of the week as they did at the beginning. It was no surprise really, given the volume of food I had consumed. But I did spend a week well-fed, awake and (perhaps) with slightly more twinkle in my eye.
Jean is a journalist for the BBC. She enjoys travelling the world, but also cycling around London trying new places to eat and visiting old favourites. She’s happiest with a glass of red wine and a plate of cheese.