It’s been all over the news – new research suggests that eating lots (and lots and lots) of fruit and vegetables may give us longer lives. But with concern that this type of diet is unaffordable and struggling with the thought of eating so many vegetables, I challenged myself to eat 10 portions per day for a week to see how difficult it would really be. Here's what I found out...
1. There are ways to make it cheaper.
At first, I assumed my grocery bills would skyrocket, so I was pleasantly surprised that plenty of everyday, budget items can count towards your daily total. Having clued up on cheap ways to eat more fruit and veg and written a shopping list to avoid impulse purchases, I stocked up on some thrifty essentials – supermarket own-brand cans of chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, dried lentils and chickpeas, dried fruit, sweet potatoes and seasonal veg that was on offer. The resulting bill was comparable to what I’d usually spend on a weekly shop, although I do acknowledge that I probably spend more than average as I work in food.
2. Frozen fruit and veg are your friend.
Like many people, a lengthy commute means I don’t have time to go shopping more than twice a week at the most, and I don’t have a massive fridge. So knowing that frozen fruit and vegetables are just as healthy as their fresh counterparts made my shopping a whole lot more manageable. I gleefully stashed away frozen beans, peas, sweetcorn, chopped spinach, blueberries, raspberries – name a food and it’s probably hidden somewhere in my freezer right now.
3. I had less of an appetite for sugary snacks.
Perhaps it was the sheer volume of food that I was eating, but I didn’t feel the need to pick in between meals as much. When I did, I tried to get more nutritional bang for my buck and fit in an extra portion where possible. 10-a-day friendly snacks included fresh fruit and yogurt, or carrot and cucumber sticks with houmous. Truth be told, after eating all that, I didn't want another morsel (although I did eat some chocolate – I’m only human).
4. I ended up trying out new recipes that I wouldn’t have eaten otherwise.
Trust me, once you’ve invested in a whole kitchen full of perishable food, the last thing you want to do is throw any of it away. This put a bit of healthy pressure on me to a) come up with ways to actually cook and consume all of it, and b) to stick to my plan, and not give up and order pizza (because although tomatoes count, cheese sadly does not). The last thing that I wanted was to get stuck in a rut of repetitive meals, so I made the effort to come up with a list of recipes to try out during the week.
5. It takes a bit of forward planning.
It wasn’t the volume of fruit and vegetables that was the tricky part of the challenge, it was making sure that I got enough variety every day. If I’d already eaten one portion of, say, tomatoes for lunch, eating another portion at dinner wouldn’t count – meaning that I couldn’t just eat six apples and eight spears of broccoli and call it a day. Armed with my trusty colour-coded 5-a-day infographic, I set about creating a plan to ensure I was eating the entire spectrum each day – a true rainbow diet. This week also coincided with Pancake Day, so it was fun trying to think of ways to squeeze extra portions into my pancakes. I ended up making fajita-inspired crêpes filled with chipotle chicken, peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomato salsa and avocado, followed by fluffy American pancakes topped with strawberries, blackberries, grapes, pomegranate seeds and a sauce made from frozen blueberries, a squeeze of lime juice and a little bit of honey. Quite the feast!
6. You have to limit fruit and smoothies (sad, but true).
When I first decided to try out this challenge, I thought it would be a breeze – I could just whizz up loads of fresh fruit into a litre of a delicious smoothie and have consumed all my portions before midday, right? Wrong. The NHS says that smoothies and fruit juice can only count as one portion, due to the sugar that they contain. It’s also worth noting they recommend that the majority of your portions come from vegetables, not fruit – sugar is still sugar, even if it’s natural sugar. Boo.
7. I had to think of exciting (yet healthy) ways to add extra flavour.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the taste of vegetables – but there’s only so much steamed broccoli and cauliflower that you can eat before you want something different. Reluctant to smother my carefully prepared vegetables in sugary and salty condiments like ketchup or soy sauce, I made sure to add plenty of all-natural flavourings – including fresh garlic and ginger, miso paste, spices like smoked paprika, chilli and cumin, and my favourite herbs, such as basil, rosemary and sage.
8. I didn’t lose any weight.
The challenge was a good reminder that eating well doesn’t necessarily mean cutting calories. It was only a week, and I wasn’t limiting my food intake in any way – just adding lots and lots of vegetables – so I didn't lose any weight. While lots of fruit and vegetables are low in calories, some of them are quite high – avocado, bananas and sweet potatoes being just a few. They’re also nutritious, but won’t necessarily equate to pounds lost just because you’re eating them instead of other snacks. (Plus, I really love dishes like cauliflower cheese and fried aubergine parmigiana, which simultaneously count towards your portion total and double your fat and salt intake for the day – but they’re so worth it).
9. You can go out to eat and still reach your target.
Unlike following a restrictive diet or a prescribed meal plan, which can make socialising difficult, it’s relatively easy to eat out and stick to 10-a-day, providing that the restaurant has enough plant-based options. Vegetable-heavy cuisines such as Indian, Thai, Chinese and Italian are likely to contribute to your daily quota, although it's more difficult to count how many portions you’ve eaten when you’re not preparing the food yourself.
10. I naturally ate less meat and grains.
Normally I base my meals around meat, fish or some kind of carb – whether that’s pasta, rice or bread. Now that I was planning my veggies first, I found myself switching to plant-based protein such as lentils and chickpeas, and swapping side dishes for cauliflower rice or sweet potatoes in order to tick off another portion. Although I still included all my usual choices and wasn’t purposely trying to cut down on them, making these swaps helped me to get more variety into my meals, which made me more satisfied overall.
11. I felt really positive about making healthy choices.
Overall, I’m really glad that I did the challenge. As someone who struggles with restrictive diets this was great for me, as it was about including more rather than eating less, which made me feel really positive. Trying to come up with creative ways to reach my daily tally was fun and made me discover delicious new vegetable-packed dishes that I otherwise wouldn’t have tried. Although I won’t be strictly counting to 10 portions every day from now on, I think it’s a great number to aim for, and I will continue to base my meals and snacks around fruit and vegetables where possible.
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