The populations of most Western countries report eating far less fruit and vegetables than they're supposed to. So what’s making it so hard for us to get to the recommended 'two and five'?

This is the first article in a three-part package “food as medicine”, exploring how food prevents and cures disease. The Conversation

Most Australian adults would know they’re meant to eat two or more serves of fruit and five or more serves of vegetables every day. Whether or not they get there is another question.

A recent national survey reported 45% of Australian women and 56% of Australian men didn’t eat enough fruit. And 90% of women and 96% of men didn’t eat enough vegetables. This figure is worse than for the preceding ten years.

Men had on average 1.6 serves of fruit and 2.3 serves of vegetables per day, and women had 1.8 serves of fruit and 2.5 serves of vegetables. A serve of fresh fruit is a medium piece (about 150 grams) and a serve of vegetables is half a cup of cooked vegetables or about a cup of salad.

The Conversation/Australian Dietary Guidelines, 2013, CC BY-ND

Why do we need so many veggies?

A high intake of fruit and vegetables lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. These chronic diseases are unfortunately common – it’s been estimated A$269 million could have been saved in 2008 if everyone in Australia met fruit and vegetable recommendations.

The recommendation to include plenty of vegetables and fruit in our diet is based on a large body of evidence showing the risk of a range of health conditions is reduced as we eat more fruit and vegetables. The specific targets of two serves for fruit and five to six serves for vegetables are largely based on nutrient requirements for healthy people and what diets usually look like for the average Australian.

So to set these guidelines, certain assumptions are made about dietary practices, such as breakfast being based around cereal/grain and dairy foods, and main meals being comprised of meat and vegetables, usually with a side of something starchy like rice, pasta or the humble potato – an Australian staple.

Does this mean it’s the only pattern to meet all the nutrient requirements? No. Could an adult be equally healthy if they ate three serves of fruit and four serves of vegetables? Yes, probably.

Some recent research even suggests our current targets don’t go far enough. It estimates an optimal intake for reducing our risk of heart disease and early death to be around ten serves of fruit and vegetables a day. Whether we are aiming for two and five, or ten serves, is somewhat academic – the clear message is most of us need to increase our fruit and vegetable intake.

Why is two and five such a hard ask?

The populations of most Western countries report eating far less fruit and vegetables than they’re supposed to. So what’s making it so hard for us to get to two and five?

Diets higher in fat, sugar and grains are generally more affordable than the recommended healthy diets high in fruit and veg. In fact, for Australians on low incomes, a healthy food basket for a fortnight would cost 28 to 34% of their income, up to twice the national average for food expenditure.

As a result, people with limited access to food for financial reasons often choose foods with high energy content (because they are filling) over those with high nutritional value but low energy content like fruit and vegetables. These high-energy foods are also easy to over-consume and this may be a contributing factor to weight gain. People who are poorer generally have a diet poorer in quality but not lower in energy content, which contributes to a higher rate of obesity, particularly in women.

Fresh fruit and vegetables cost more to purchase on a dollars per kilojoule basis, and also perish more quickly than processed foods. They take more time and skill to prepare and, after all of that effort, if they don’t get eaten for reasons of personal preference, they go to waste. For many it may not stack up financially to fill the fridge with fruit and vegetables. Under these circumstances, pre-prepared or fast food, which the family is sure to eat without complaint or waste, is all too convenient.

How we can increase veggie intake

The home and school environments are two key influencers of children’s food preferences and intakes. Parents are the “food gatekeepers” and role models particularly for younger children. Where there is parental encouragement, role modelling and family rules, there is an increased fruit and vegetable intake.

Dietary behaviours and food choices often start in childhood and continue through adolescence to adulthood. So encouraging fruit and vegetable intake in schools by mechanisms such as “fruit snack times” may be a good investment.

Policy approaches include subsidies on healthy foods. Other examples include levying a tax on foods of low nutritional value, improved food labelling, and stricter controls on the marketing of unhealthy foods. In Australia debate continues around a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, which could be used to subsidise healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables.

Research has found the more variety in fruit and vegetables available, the more we’ll consume. Those who meet the vegetable recommendation are more likely to report having at least three vegetable varieties at their evening meal. So increasing the number of different vegetables at the main meal is one simple strategy to increase intake.

This could be made a journey of discovery by adding one new vegetable to the household food supply each week. Buying “in season” fruit and vegetables and supplementing fresh varieties with frozen and canned options can bring down the total cost. Then it’s a matter of exploring simple, quick and tasty ways to prepare them so they become preferred foods for the family.

Genevieve James-Martin, Research Dietitian, CSIRO; Gemma Williams, Research Dietitian, CSIRO, and Malcolm Riley, Nutrition Epidemiologist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  1. LCHF

    1. I hope that’s working for you.

  2. Interesting that this article continually refers to “Buying” fruit &veggies & not growing them. It does not take very much space, savvy or cost to grow a few carrots broccoli, dwarf beans, peas, parsnip, cauliflower, tomatoes, radish,lettuce or silver beet (the list goes on) ~ only a little effort & TLC.

    I know that it costs far less to purchase a few packets of seeds & some seedlings than it costs for ONE meal at a fast food outlet.Perhaps we should be engaging & encouraging our primary school students to learn how to grow & enjoy their own products BEFORE they start computer studies.

    Our fore fathers grew their own because they had no choice, the Baby Boomers grow their own because they grew up in an era that provided for themselves. Our current generations are lead by a new education system that does not value the basics of life.

    I think we need to revisit our education system. Start our kids with the right values & beliefs first & then teach them the ways of the modern world.

    Then they might eat their fruit & veggies because they have been taught how to do it.

  3. Im 70 need a really simple diet i can budget for weekly on the pension. Dont cook except rice. I live on porridge/ wheat bix. Powdered milk fc. Raw sugar, copd meds & asthma puffer packet flavoured noodles microwave cooked sampler of chilli tuna, single serve. Plastic wrap microwavable carrot broccoli cauli (yum) stick it all in a bowl and try to keep it down as i watch the ABsocialistC. Frozen microwave frozen pie for lunch. A fruit box from supermarket i share with the birds.

    A guide on what will keep us alive without cost to everyone else would be/ is fantastic. Thanks.

    1. A cost affective favorite winter recipe of mine make 8 meals one cook, freeze half for next week.
      Is, in large saucepan (dutch oven) brown 1kg mince (cost $7), add 2 500g Bolognese(2×$2=$4) (claim to have 4 serves veg per 500g ×2 = 8 serves =8 meals), add 2 cans 400g drained and washed kidney beans(cost 2×$1=$2), add 2× 400g cans drained and washed(removes sodium, important) peas and carrots(cost 2×$1=$2)(8 serves of vegs), bring mixture to boil then turn heat down simmer 15minutes.

      With ladle distribute evenly between 8 containers(4 freezer and microwave safe) cool and freeze or refrigerate as required.

      Add cheese of choice to top on reheating ( ensure heated throughly ), sprinkle hot paprika to taste. Pasta if you must.

      8 meals under $3 per meal.

  4. Great article, especially the visuals of what a serving actually looks like. Looking forward to reading next two. Thank you.

  5. Isn’t there an approx 10 x larger amount of cost savings AUD2,334 million?

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