Anti-inflammatory food superstars for every season
Harvard Health Ad Watch: An upbeat ad for a psoriasis treatment
A new targeted treatment for early-stage breast cancer?
What is neurodiversity?
Thinking about holiday gatherings? Harvard Health experts weigh in
Time to stock up on zinc?
Recent study shows more complications with alternative prostate biopsy method
Walnuts: A worthy addition to your daily diet?
What it takes to achieve world-changing scientific breakthroughs
Do weighted blankets help with insomnia?
We often talk about how diets rich in fruits and vegetables are good for your health. But how much do you need to average per day to reap real rewards? An analysis from Harvard indicates that a total of five servings per day of fruits and vegetables offers the strongest health benefits.
The research, published online March 1, 2021, by the journal Circulation, pooled self-reported health and diet information from dozens of studies from around the world, which included about two million people who were followed up to 30 years.
Compared with people who said they ate just two servings of fruits or vegetables each day, people who ate five servings per day had
“Fruits and vegetables are major sources of several nutrients that are strongly linked to good health, particularly the health of the heart and blood vessels: potassium, magnesium, fiber, and polyphenols [antioxidant plant compounds],” explains Dr. Daniel Wang, lead author on the study and a member of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The most effective combination of fruits and vegetables among study participants was two servings of fruits plus three servings of vegetables per day, for a total of five servings daily.
The biggest health benefits came from eating leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach) and fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C and beta carotene (citrus, berries, carrots). “These are primary sources of antioxidants that may play a role in preventing cancer,” Dr. Wang says.
Interestingly, eating more than five servings of fruits or vegetables per day didn’t seem to provide additional benefit in lowering the risk of death. Neither did eating starchy vegetables like peas, corn, or potatoes, or drinking fruit juices.
Also, understand that we’re talking about how much you eat on average. If during any particular day you have no fruit and vegetables, that’s fine: you won’t keel over. You can add a little more than usual on other days to raise your average for the week.
And you don’t need to make major changes to your typical meals: just minor changes. For example, breakfast could be a bowl of cereal with some blueberries, or perhaps eggs and sautéed tomatoes, onions, and spinach.
Lunch could be a salad with your favorite fruits and vegetables (perhaps kale and spinach salad with grapefruit chunks, red peppers, carrots, and pine nuts), a cup of yogurt with strawberries, or a smoothie with kale and mango.
At dinner, include a side salad or a large side of vegetables such as steamed broccoli or yellow squash and zucchini. If you haven’t had a chance to eat enough vegetables throughout the day, make your main meal a large salad with lots of colorful vegetables and some chunks of protein, such as grilled chicken or fish.
For dessert: fresh or frozen fruit is a delicious and healthful treat, especially with a dab of frozen yogurt.
If five servings per day is the goal, how much, exactly, is a serving? We spell that out for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in the table below (see “Fruit and vegetable servings”).
This can guide you in planning meals that include your favorites. Aim for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to get the best mix of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients in your personalized five-a-day plan.
Fruit (and serving size)
Apple (1 fruit)
Apricots (1 fresh, 1/2 cup canned. or 5 dried)
Avocado (1/2 fruit or 1/2 cup)
Banana (1 fruit)
Blueberries (1/2 cup fresh, frozen, or canned)
Cantaloupe (1/4 melon)
Grapefruit (1/2 fruit)
Grapes (1/2 cup)
Peaches or plums (1 fresh or 1/2 cup canned)
Pear (1 fruit)
Prunes or dried plums (6 prunes or 1/4 cup)
Raisins (1 ounce)
Strawberries (1/2 cup fresh, frozen, or canned)
Vegetable (and serving size)
Broccoli (1/2 cup)
Brussels sprouts (1/2 cup)
Cabbage (1/2 cup)
Carrot juice (2–3 ounces)
Carrots (1/2 cup cooked, 1/2 raw carrot, or 2–4 sticks)
Cauliflower (1/2 cup)
Celery (2–3 sticks)
Corn (1 ear or 1/2 cup frozen or canned)
Eggplant (1/2 cup)
Kale, mustard greens, or chard (1/2 cup)
Lettuce (1 cup iceberg, leaf, romaine)
Mixed or stir-fry vegetables (1/2 cup)
Onion (1 slice)
Peppers (3 slices green, yellow, or red)
Salsa, picante or taco sauce (1/4 cup)
Spinach (1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw)
Squash, dark orange (winter) (1/2 cup)
Summer squash or zucchini (1/2 cup)
String beans (1/2 cup)
Tomato or V-8 juice (small glass)
Tomatoes (2 slices)
Tomato sauce (1/2 cup)
Vegetable soup (1 cup)
Yams or sweet potatoes (1/2 cup)
Source: Circulation, March 14, 2021 (published online ahead of print).
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
You might also be interested in…
This week-by-week plan, The Harvard Medical School 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating, will help you transform your eating habits into a program of nutritious and delicious food choices that can last a lifetime. Applying the latest results from nutrition science, Harvard experts take you by the hand and guide you to create an eating plan to improve heart health, longevity, energy, and vitality.
Get the latest in health news delivered to your inbox!
© 2021 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College
Thanks for visiting. Don’t miss your FREE gift.
The Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness, is yours absolutely FREE when you sign up to receive Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School
Sign up to get tips for living a healthy lifestyle, with ways to fight inflammation and improve cognitive health, plus the latest advances in preventative medicine, diet and exercise, pain relief, blood pressure and cholesterol management, and more.
Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School
Get helpful tips and guidance for everything from fighting inflammation to finding the best diets for weight loss…from exercises to build a stronger core to advice on treating cataracts. PLUS, the latest news on medical advances and breakthroughs from Harvard Medical School experts.
BONUS! Sign up now and
get a FREE copy of the
Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness
Stay on top of latest health news from Harvard Medical School.
Plus, get a FREE copy of the Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness.
Anti-inflammatory food superstars for every season