Doctor, doctor, if I eat 20 portions of fruit and veg a day, will I ever die?

This is a serious question with economic consequences for the planet

Howard Jacobson
Friday 04 April 2014 17:40

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. If I eat five 80g portions of fruit and vegetables a day, I’ll live longer. But if I eat seven 80g portions of fruit and vegetables a day, I’ll live longer still. I forget how much longer I was going to live when I was on five 80g portions – that’s history now, anyway – but under this new regimen of seven 80g portions of fruit and vegetables a day, I’ll reduce my risk of dying of heart disease by 31 per cent and my risk of dying of cancer by 25 per cent which ought to mean I’ve increased my chance of living longer by a total of 56 per cent. But that’s 56 per cent of what? Don’t I need to know at what age I was going to die when I wasn’t eating any 80g portions of fruit and vegetables before I can reliably calculate the age I am likely to live to now that I am eating seven?

Or am I simply being measured against someone else – say, you, reader, if you aren’t eating the number of vegetables I am? Am I chalking off the years I’ve got left against the years you haven’t? It’s not pleasant to think we are competing for life, but that’s been the way of it ever since we raced one another out of the primeval soup. At least then, however, we just pushed one another back in and beat our chests. We didn’t crow over grams and percentages. Today I can’t see anyone peeling an apple without wondering how much longer than me he’s got.

But let’s suppose – to keep you out of it – that I increase the number of portions of fruit and vegetables I eat a day to 15 or 20. And let’s suppose further that I up the dosage from 80g to 100g or even 150g. After the rough equivalent of 30 bananas, 25 tomatoes, four turnips and two nosebags of swedes daily, could it be that I’m looking at eternal life? This is a serious question with significant demographic and economic consequences for the planet: is it now becoming possible for us to eat our way to immortality?

There was a time when all but the rich could be relied upon to scoff themselves into an early grave. In working-class Manchester, we spooned gravy jugs of grease on to everything we ate at home, and ordered extra of every extra at every restaurant we went to. We couldn’t eat chicken curry without an accompaniment of poppadums, rotis, chapatis, stuffed naans, rice, raitas, bhajis, saags, paneers, okra, and Bombay potatoes, and we couldn’t eat Singapore noodles without a side dish of Singapore noodles.

By curry I mean the first curry of the evening, which we usually put away after getting back from school and before hitting the Ritz. The real curry – the vindaloo we ate between midnight and two in the morning, depending on how the Ritz had gone – came as an extra to itself. We were growing boys. Our mothers were always telling us we looked thin. Hence the cheese and pickle sandwiches they stuffed into our satchels to supplement school lunch which they knew, without seeing it, to be inadequate. In percentage terms, I’d say my chance then of living to the age I am now was 56 per cent less, but don’t ask me 56 per cent less than what, or how much further the remaining 44 per cent is going to get me.

If I take more care of myself now, it’s as much because there’s no one left not to take care of myself with as because I want to live for ever. The fun’s gone. I occasionally see a few of the friends I used to drink wine with, but we spend the first half of the evening trying to decide whether we’ll manage to get through a whole bottle between the five of us and, since we know we won’t, whether to go for a small carafe or push the boat out and order three glasses which we’ll divvy up. And even then there’s always one of us who’ll want to check that the alcohol content doesn’t exceed 11.5 per cent, each half a per cent being equivalent to a year of what’s left to us of lives that some would say are no longer worth living.

Smoking’s gone the same way, of course, and even yoghurt’s not the wild indulgence of old. Like everybody else, I went for Greek yoghurt whenever it was it became fashionable, but then came the warnings and I changed to low-fat yoghurt until that turned out to have too much sugar in it, which suddenly made Greek yoghurt all right again, provided it was low-fat Greek yoghurt (which meant it didn’t taste like Greek yoghurt), though here again there was a threat, this time in the form of calcium, too many milligrams of which can reduce your life expectancy by the number of years you’ve saved by not eating full-fat yoghurt.

And now I read that the Government is issuing guidelines to restaurants on how big portions should be, in order to reduce the gross weight of the population – a problem that could have been averted had that same population been allowed to die off naturally, as in the old days, as a consequence of all those naans and rotis and never eating a vegetable. How long before someone in the Department of Health wakes up to the fact that the healthier they make us the longer we will live (up by 56 per cent as I write), and the longer we live, the more rubbish we will want to eat?

We face longer, bleaker lives anyway, with less salt in our salted cod, less fat in our fatty chips, less dough and diameter to our pizza bases and therefore less of the loaded, sloppy toppings that those of us who love pizzas love them for. If it wasn’t for the danger I face on a daily basis from mad cyclists – and I only mention this to wind up the mad cyclists who routinely write me hate mail – I’d say I’ve every chance of making it to 150. Time enough to consume about a million and half grams of fruit and vegetable, though I wouldn’t trust my maths.

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