For years, we have been told to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but new research suggests that eight servings may be significantly better.  

The diet and lifestyles of more than 300,000 people across eight countries in Europe found that people who ate eight or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day had a 22% lower risk of dying from heart disease than those who ate five servings a day. But, as expected, those who ate 5 servings did significantly better than those who ate less.   

One portion or serving was considered to be 90 grams, equivalent to a medium banana, apple, or carrot.  

The average intake of fruits and vegetables in the various countries came to about 4 servings a day.

Spain, Greece, and Italy were the leaders in fruit and vegetable eating. Italian men enjoyed 7.5 portions a day, and Spanish women 6.7 portions.

Healthy eating tailed off the further north the researchers looked in Europe. UK men managed 3.9 portions a day, and UK women 4.2 portions.

Swedish men and women were the worst, with only 3.5 and 2.9 portions a day.

The researchers said that factors of cost and availability of fruits and vegetables most likely account for the differences in intake.

Stepping up from 5 servings to 8 servings a day might be seem like a lot, but lead researcher Francesca Crowe said, “Even if everyone increased their intake by just one portion a day, the impact on public health would be enormous.”

Unfortunately, the figures for the US are very poor. In 2005, only 30% of Americans consumed 2 or more pieces of fruit a day.  Regarding vegetables, only 32% of American women and 22% of American men ate 3 or more servings of vegetables a day (including both raw vegetable salad and cooked vegetables).

This scale of 2 fruits and 3 vegetables reflects the 5-a-day program. But, imagine if it were bumped up to 8. The percentage of Americans who eat 8 or more fruits and vegetables a day must be well below 10%.  And it’s trending lower because of rising food prices in the bad economy. Produce is expensive, though there is a wide spread. Bananas, for instance, are still quite cheap at fifty cents a pound. But, it wasn’t long ago that they were three pounds for a dollar. So, everything is going up.

But, I hope people will find other ways to economize than to reduce their consumption of fresh produce. It isn’t just about nutrition, as in fuel. It’s about nutritional therapeutics and disease prevention. It’s about avoiding the misery of the “medical phase of life.” It’s about staying alive. You can’t put a price on that.