It’s not easy being green
When it comes to eating healthily, it can seem like the goalposts are always being shifted by people in lab coats. Now they say our five-a-day of fruit and veg needs to be doubled, and it sounds a lot like hard work ...
I’m starting to understand why scientists have faced persecution for so much of human history ...
If I told you I had a healthy lifestyle, that would be a lie. I have a tendency to reward myself with food. Start column? Have a snack. Finish column? Have a snack. Open blank Word document that may, at some point, contain column? Good time for a snack.
In addition, I dislike cold, the company of strangers, overlit spaces and Lycra, which means I only really exercise from June to August, and even then I do it grudgingly.
But the one thing I am really good at, the one bit of a healthy lifestyle I have absolutely nailed, is my five pieces of fruit and veg a day; partly because I like eating. Orange juice and a piece of fruit in the morning, a mid-morning helping of raisins or apricots, salad or cucumber at lunch, a banana in the afternoon, some olives before dinner – there’s your five-a-day. Depending on what I have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, sometimes I might get as many as eight different pieces of fruit and veg. So, while other people talk about their squats and their lifts and their godknows-what, I can, at least, comfort myself that I am eating 60% more fruit or veg than I needed to.
Or I could. Now, scientists at Imperial College London have pulled the rug out from under me. To get “the maximum protection against disease and premature death”, researchers say, I should be eating 10 pieces of fruit and/or veg every day: 10! I’ve gone from overperforming by 60% to falling short by 20%! I’m starting to understand why scientists have faced persecution for so much of human history.
At first, I opt for denial. What no one ever tells you about lengthening your life expectancy is that most of the extra years are swallowed up by doing whatever it is you do to increase your life expectancy, I tell myself ... I worked out the other day that when you factor in sniffing it gingerly, forcing it down your throat and washing up, the extra time acquired by taking ginseng is completely swallowed up by the consumption of ginseng.
But I can’t get rid of the nagging voice telling me I need to eat more fruit, so I take comfort in creative accounting. Breakfast is either jam on toast or Gregg’s deadly breakfast deal (a bacon roll and a surprisingly good coffee costs just £2.25, but clogs up your arteries with every visit). Tomato ketchup and fruit jam don’t count, according to the scientists, but scientists were saying that you were safe with five a day only two weeks ago, so what do they know?
Unfortunately, I know I’m fooling myself, so after a few days I decide to retreat to a studied nihilism. Yes, eating 10 pieces of fruit might protect me from disease and premature death. But so would not having an orange toddler in the White House, or someone doing something about the poisonous cloud over London.
Nutritionists recommend not denial, not nihilism or cooking the books, but substitution: that is, replacing your mid-afternoon slice of cake or lunchtime chocolate bar with a piece of soft fruit. I am dubious about this: I like fruit and veg, but if I asked a colleague to get me a KitKat and they came back with a watermelon slice, I’d have some fairly sharp remarks for them afterwards.
It doesn’t take long before I realise my scepticism was right: what happens with substitution is that you consider the healthy option, feel virtuous, and then opt for the sugary alternative.
There are three solutions to that little problem: the first, of course, is willpower. Not having any myself I find that approach to be unworkable even though I’m sure it works well for other people.
The second is to scrap substitution and opt for “addition”: so instead of switching from an unhealthy snack to a healthy one, I have a healthy snack and an unhealthy one. The danger, here, is that addition very quickly leads to expansion. Any health gains those extra pieces of fruit might be worth are being wiped out by the negative consequences of my rapidly extending bulk.
There’s no option for it: I will either have to eat less, or exercise more, neither of which are particularly appetising prospects. What I really need is somewhere I can be told how to increase the amount of vegetation in my regular meals, how to make my diet greener and healthier, and what exactly it is you are supposed to do with celeriac. If only such a place could be found …