It's time to make friends with the produce aisle: pumping your diet with fruits and vegetables isn't just good for your waistline -- it could save your life, according to new research from the University of Oxford.
While "5 a day" has traditionally been the mantra for fruit and veggie consumption, researchers found that those who consumed eight or more servings were 22 percent less likely to die from heart disease than those who consumed three or fewer servings a day.
Even among those who couldn't manage the eight servings, more fruits and veggies consistently meant a lower risk; for every additional serving above two per day, researchers observed a four percent decrease in the rate of heart disease deaths.
Though past studies have linked the consumption of fruit and vegetables to heart health, many remain skeptical as to whether these foods have a direct protective effect on the heart. Given the size of Tuesday's study (over 300,000 participants from eight different European countries) and the strength of its findings, some doctors feel that it may erase and remaining doubts concerning fruits and veggies, and cardiovascular health.
"This is probably the largest study of its type and should convince even the greatest skeptic of the value of fruits and veggies," said Dr. Randall Zusman, director of the division of hypertension at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"This compares 'enough' fruit and vegetable intake to 'more than enough' and suggests that 'more than enough' is better," said Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. This could have big implications considering that the U.S. population "doesn't even approximate the 'enough' target" as it is.
The study, which was published Tuesday in the European Heart Journal, is part of the EPIC trial, a long-term study in Europe initially set up to track the effect of vegetable and fruit intake on cancer.
In the U.S., the recommended consumption of fruits and vegetables has often been promoted as "five a day". The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved away from that recommendation in 2007, to a more flexible approach, dubbed Fruits & Veggies - More Matters.
Instead of a flat recommendation of five servings a day, the new program changes recommendations based on age, sex and activity level. For a 40-year-old sedentary man, recommendations are now two cups of fruits and three cups of vegetables a day; for a sedentary woman of that age, the recommendation is 1.5 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of veggies.
So what exactly would the eight portions a day observed in the study look like?
A day of eight servings amounts to about 23 ounces. Eating nearly a pound and a half of produce may sound daunting, but put it into real terms and it becomes more manageable:
"A large navel orange can easily weight close to 8 ounces and so does a large apple," says Carla Wolper with the Obesity Research Center at St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital in New York. "That leaves a measly six ounces for salad, string beans, or other vegetables on the dinner plate, so yes people can easily eat this much," she said.
Considering that the majority of the general population in the U.K. and the U.S. consume fewer than five recommended servings of fruits and vegetables per day, asking for eight may be a bit of a stretch, concedes Dr. Francesca Crowe, lead author on the study.