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Why a combo of 2 fruits and 3 veggies each day could lead to a longer life

Adding more fruits and veggies to your daily diet could lead to a longer life, new research suggests.
Illustration of woman's profile with fruits and veggies inside
An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but bumping that up to two fruits and three veggies a day could help you live a longer life.Katty Huertas / TODAY / Getty Images

Eating five servings a day of any combination of fruits and veggies could extend your life, a new study suggests.

An analysis of data from more than 100,000 health care professionals who were followed for as much as three decades found that participants who consumed five servings a day of fruits and vegetables had a 13% lower risk of death from all causes compared to those who consumed just two servings a day, according to the report published in Circulation.

“Most Americans have a very low intake — one serving of fruit and one and a half servings of vegetables — per day,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Dong Wang, a member of the faculty of medicine at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Eating about five servings a day was associated with the lowest risk of death. That five can be translated into two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day.”

While eating more than that could be healthy it won’t increase your longevity by much, Wang said. He also noted that not all fruits and veggies have the same life-extending value. “Starchy vegetables, like peas and corn and fruit juices aren’t as beneficial,” he explained.

To take a closer look at the impact of fruits and vegetables on longevity, Wang and his colleagues turned to data from 66,719 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and 42,016 men signed on with the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS). Dietary information came from a baseline questionnaire participants in both studies filled out, which was updated every two to four years.

During 30 years of follow-up, 18,793 women in the NHS died and during 28 years of follow-up, 15,105 men in the HPFS died. When the researchers analyzed the dietary data, taking into account such factors as age, BMI, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, smoking status and alcohol consumption, they found that five servings a day of fruits and vegetables was associated with a 13% lower risk of mortality from all causes when compared to two servings a day.

More specifically, five daily servings were associated with a 12% decreased risk of dying from heart disease, a 10% lowered risk of dying from cancer and a 35% lower risk of dying from respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Experts welcomed the study and offered advice on how to increase daily consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Vaani Panse Garg noted that the study has some limitations, chief among them that the participants were all health professionals and thus more likely to already eat healthier and to get more exercise than the average American.

Nevertheless, the finding that five servings a day improved life expectancy can probably apply to everyone, said Garg, an assistant professor of medicine and cardiology at the Icahn School of Medicine and a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Morningside.

While fresh fruits and veggies may be the best choice, not everyone has easy access to these foods or can afford them, Garg said. That’s why she often suggests canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. The advantage of frozen veggies over canned ones is that they are less likely to have added sodium, Garg said. With frozen and canned fruits you want to make sure there are no added sugars, she said.

One way to add frozen fruits to the diet is to put them in smoothies, Garg said, adding that some vegetables, such as spinach, can be tossed into a smoothie without taking away from the flavor.

Garg often suggests patients buy partitioned plates with one section dedicated to vegetables and possibly another to fruit. “That clearly shows when you are missing the vegetables,” she said.

Dr. Aryan Aiyer stresses the importance of developing healthy eating habits. “Once habits are formed, you tend to do them without thinking much about it,” he said.

First, “when you go shopping make sure you don’t walk away from the grocery store with something that is bad for you,” said Aiyer, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and medical director of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute’s Lipid Clinic. “Once it gets into the house, you’re going to snack on it.”

Aiyer suggests buying fruit, such as cantaloupes or honeydew melons, and immediately cutting it up, so it’s available for a quick and easy snack. “That’s much better than just putting it into the refrigerator and waiting for the opportunity to cut it up,” he added.

For those with crammed schedules, Aiyer suggests steaming veggies. “It just takes 15 minutes to steam a bag of Brussel sprouts and after a while it becomes a habit to have vegetables with each meal,” he said.