How many apples a day keep the doctor away? Fruits and veggies’ health benefits

Elena Vardanian
5 min read

Can a healthy diet be a lifesaver? In certain cases it can! Consuming a healthy diet throughout the life course helps to prevent malnutrition in all its forms as well as a range of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and conditions. That is why you don't neglect daily intake of fruit, vegetables and other dietary fiber such as whole grains.

Salad studies

According to WHO recommendations on a healthy diet, one for adults includes at least 400 g (i.e. 5 portions) of fruits and vegetables per day, excluding potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and other starchy roots (1).

Recent study led by Dong D. Wang, M.D., Sc.D., an epidemiologist, nutritionist and a member of the medical faculty at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, shows that people who eat five servings of fruits and veggies daily lowering their chances of all-cause death compared to people who eat only two servings per day for 13% (2). Researchers analyzed data from the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study that included almost 110,000 adults in total. Yet, Wong’s research has its limitations. Since it is observational, it is difficult to represent an association between fruit and vegetable consumption and risk of death. It simply does not “confer a direct cause-and-effect relationship” (5).

The higher the average daily intake of fruits and vegetables, the lower the chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Compared with those in the lowest category of fruit and vegetable intake (less than 1.5 servings a day), those who averaged 8 or more servings a day were 30% less likely to have had a heart attack or stroke (4). Wong’s study shows that two fruits and three vegetables can reduce risk of death from cardiovascular disease for a 12% and lower the risk from cancer for 10% and a 35% lower risk from respiratory disease, compared with people who ate just two daily servings. (5)

Fruit and vegetable-rich diet can lower blood pressure. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) study showed that people with high blood pressure, who followed a special diet that included high intake of fruits and vegetables, reduced their systolic blood pressure (the upper number) by about 11 mm Hg and their diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) by almost 6 mm Hg. (4)

Some types of fruits and vegetables may protect against certain cancers. A study by Farvid and colleagues followed a Nurses’ Health Study II cohort of 90,476 premenopausal women for 22 years and found that those who ate apples, bananas, grapes, and corn during adolescence had a 25% lower risk of developing breast cancer. (4) 

Fruits and vegetables’ specific components may also be protective against cancer. For example, according to the Health Professionals Study, one of the pigments that give tomatoes their red hue—lycopene— may help protect men against prostate cancer, especially aggressive forms of it. But more research is needed to understand the exact relationship between fruits and vegetables, lycopene, and cancer.

What are the options?

On the way toward ‘5 a day’ goal your daily servings can be met from a variety of fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic. Besides, frozen vegetables can be even more nutrient-dense than their fresh counterparts.

Not necessary to pick between conventional and organic fruits and vegetables. “Both are healthy and equally nutritious choices”, says dietitian Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a national nonprofit organization promoting fruits and vegetables. (2)

According to the researchers at University College London, consumption of vegetables and salad proved to have a greater "protective effect" than eating fresh fruit. The study concluded that each daily portion of fresh vegetables reduced the overall risk of death by 16%. For salad, the benefit was 13%, and for fresh fruit it was 4%. Fruit juices had no effect at all (3).

Fruit juices and starchy vegetables such as peas, corn and potatoes were not associated with reduced risk of death or chronic diseases (2). Moreover, due to their higher glycemic load compared with other fruits and vegetables, they have a greater ability to raise blood sugar levels. That is why the new study’s findings are out of tune with recommendations in the recently updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which count fruit juice as a serving of fruit, and recommend up to five cups of starchy vegetables per week. (2)

The bottom line 

The findings appear to provide strong support for increased consumption of vegetables and fruits that nutritionists around the world, as well as the WHO and our mothers, have promoted for years. So keep fruits and veggies handy, keep experimenting and stay healthy!