Putting a Metric on Quality

Eat 800 (g) grams (total) of fruits and/or vegetables per day and reduce your risk of cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease and perhaps most importantly, all-cause mortality (1). There is not often consensus in the nutrition literature, but it is almost universally accepted that consumption of fruits and vegetables are good for your health. This ultimately begs the question of how much? Certain numbers of servings are put forth as recommendations, but there is little consensus of what constitutes a “serving” and it often differs depending on the food (2,3). As an example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has “cup-equivalent” guidelines for 5 different vegetable categories and separate recommendations for fruit (3). The “cup-equivalent” is not necessarily a true cup (e.g., 2 cups of leafy greens = 1 “cup-equivalent”) and there is a wide range in the recommended amount of each sub-category (e.g., 1.5 cups per week of dark-green vegetables, 5 cups per week of starchy vegetables) (3). Practically applying the recommendations for tracking and meal prep becomes rather burdensome.

This is why the meta-analysis by Aune et al. (2017) is so elegant. Their research found improved health associated with amassing 800g of fruit and vegetables per day. Further, 800g per day is a target similar to other research regarding health outcomes and can meet (or exceed) the USDA recommendations (1,3,5,8,9,10). The 800g target is also at or above recommendations set by other organizations such as the World Cancer Research Fund and the World Health Organization, as well as standards set by some European countries (1).

What does 800g of fruits and vegetables look like?  It can fit on a standard dinner plate… although you certainly wouldn’t want to eat 800g at dinner alone.

ExamplePlate4.png

It is important to note this is an observational study. It cannot be concluded that eating this volume of fruits and vegetables will definitively improve your health or lifespan. Thankfully, fruit and vegetable consumption has very few downsides.

800 Grams as a Diet Method

I was struck by the simplicity of the idea of making 800g a day of fruit and vegetable consumption my new “diet” method. I have used it as a guiding principle since reading the article and also tracked data for a 30-day 800g challenge. (Note, the “rules” of the diet method I created should not be interpreted as findings from the study.)

These were the “rules” I played by:

  • It is 800 grams (g) a day split any way you want: all fruits, all vegetables, cooked, uncooked, frozen, canned.
  • Dried fruits/vegetables and juices did not count towards the 800g.
  • While some fruits and vegetables are more nutrient dense than others, I simply tried to be as diverse as possible without enforcing additional rules.
  • I included beans in my total (which was not included by Aune et al. (2017)), as they are associated with metabolic benefits like improved glucose control and provide a rich source of fiber and polyphenols for the gut microbiota (5,6,7).
  • No foods were off limits. As long as I ate the 800g per day, any other choices were fair game.

In my 30-day challenge, my average intake was:

  • 886 g/day of fruits and vegetables (range: 806 – 1090);
  • 107 g/day of total carbohydrate (range: 53-160); and
  • 25 g/day of total fiber (range: 8-39).

(The total carbohydrate and fiber grams each day were higher in my overall diet due to carbohydrate and fiber in non-qualifying items liked dried fruit, rice, etc.)

Benefits
  • Macronutrient Flexibility. By allowing any fruits and vegetables as “fair game” it is up to the user how many carbohydrate grams they consume. This means it can be molded to fit both lower and higher carb needs. It could be very low carb at ~25 grams per day (e.g., all celery) or closer to ~215 grams (e.g., all Japanese yams).

HighCarb.png    LowerCarb2.png

  • Preference Flexibility. The user can choose what fruits and vegetables they want to eat. They can even eat all fruit if they want, which may sound like a lot of sugar but comes in around ~135g of total carbohydrate.
  • Pushes Out Poorer Choices. To amass 800g, the user does have to make better choices throughout the day (since 800g of fruits and vegetables is tough to consume in one sitting). So while “anything goes” in the diet, you will likely find yourself reaching for the piece of fruit over a poorer choice to stay on track.
  • Allows for Optimization. It is more ideal to eat a diverse range of fruits and vegetables than eating 800g in just strawberries. (Although there are worse diets than eating 800g of strawberries a day, which is 61 grams of total carbohydrate, 16 grams of fiber, and lots of phtyochemicals!) Some choices – like leafy greens – are more nutrient dense than others, but it is important not to overlook the food value of some of the less recognized vegetables like the lowly white potato (4). No matter how nutrient dense a food is, eating only that food does not cover all the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals optimally. This is the beauty of the tool: there is flexibility for the individual to get as much diversity in as they can.
  • Accepts Imperfection. Few people can adhere to a 100% perfect diet forever, and it is questionable how necessary that is. Also, it is unrealistic that every day will have the perfect representation of nutrient density and variety. That is ok. Ideally, this is a tool for users to include a good dose of fruits and vegetables while accepting the dietary indiscretions that keep us (well, at least me!) sane.
  • Sustainability. Due to the flexibility, the lack “no” foods, and the minimal burden to track during the day, applying the 800g rule to my diet has been a sustainable check for healthy eating. I can consistently eat better choices without necessitating perfection.
Final Thoughts

This is merely a tool  (i.e., method) to put a simplified metric on quality. Accepted nutrition principles (i.e., physiology) still apply (see Methods vs. Principles). If you eat more than you need, you will gain weight and poorer quality items are not associated with health. Like all methods, it can be applied incorrectly.

References

  1. Aune, D., Giovannucci, E., Boffetta, P., Fadness, L.T., Keum, N., Norat, T., … Tonstad, S. (2017). Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality-a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. International Journal of Epidemiology, 46(3), 1029-1056. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyw319
  2. Slavin, J.L., & Lloyd, B. (2012). Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables. Advances in Nutrition, 3, 506-516.
  3. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2015). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  Retrieved Aug 9, 2017, from: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/
  4. Weaver, C., & Marr, E.T. (2013). White Vegetables: A Forgotten Source of Nutrients: Purdue Roundtable Executive Summary.  Advances in Nutrition, 4, 318S-326S.
  5. Grosso, G., Marventano, S., Yang, J., Micek, A., Pajak, A., Scalfi, L., … Kales, S.N. (2017). A comprehensive meta-analysis on evidence of Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular disease: Are individual components equal? Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57(15), 3218-3232.
  6. Higgins, J.A. (2012). Whole Grains, Legumes, and the Subsequent Meal Effect: Implications for Blood Glucose Control and the Role of Fermentation. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 2012, 1-7. doi:10.1155/2012/829238
  7. Conlon, M.A., & Bird, A.R. (2015). The Impact of Diet and Lifestyle on Gut Microbiota and Human Health. Nutrients, 7(1), 17-44.
  8. Lock, K., Pomerleau, J., Causer, L., Altmann, D.R., & McKee, M. (2005). The global burden of disease attributable to low consumption of fruit and vegetables: implications for the global strategy on diet. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 83(20), 100-108.
  9. Liu, R.H. (2013). Health-Promoting Components of Fruits and Vegetables in the Diet.  Advances in Nutrition, 4, 384S-392S.
  10. Schwingshackl, L., Schwedhelm, C., Hoffmann, G., Lampousi, A.M., Knuppel, S., Iqbal, K., … Boeing, H. (2017). Food groups and risk of all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 105(6), 1462-1473.

5 thoughts on “Putting a Metric on Quality

  • I have been doing this diet as a weght loss tool… i am losing, however, it is a slooow process. I will say, it is HARD to reach 800/day. So when im close, i cram a banana in, which is typically close to 100. My question is, if im not hungry should i try to reach the 800 still? And do white potatoes count towards the hundred? (Im aware, white potatoes shouldn’t be the only source) I started this as a suggestion from a gym coach. I do strength training 2-3 times a week and cardio 2 times a week but am still gaining weight. I make better choices, but still struggle bad with breakfast. Please help! Just tell me what to do to lose weight! I’ll do it! Lol I am 5’10” female, 45 yo, 215lbs. My average weight was between 175-185. I would like to see 160 again but I’d be happy with 180 again.

    • Hi Danielle,
      Welcome aboard! The deal with the #800gChallenge for weight loss is that physiology still applies. Meaning, the quantity of the fruits and vegetables you choose to reach 800g, in combination with all the other food in your diet, has to total less than your body needs to lose weight. As such, if you are being diligent on your diet and eating “clean,” but not seeing the results you want… you do have to become more precise in tracking. I.e., tracking total pro, carb, and fat grams each day. The #800gChallenge can be overlaid on any macros by the choices you make, be it lower carb options (cucumber, bell pepper, carrots) or higher carb options (white potato (yes, that counts but not commercially fried ones), yams) or higher fat options (olives, avocado). Check out my instagram @optimizemenutrition for some ideas too hit 800grams, including breakfast.

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