Eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day is healthier than the five currently recommended and would prolong lives, researchers say.
A study of 65,226 men and women indicated the more fruit and vegetables people ate, the less likely they were to die – at any given age.
Seven a day cut the risk of dying from cancer and heart disease.
But the government says its “five-a-day” advice is sufficient and that many of us struggle to achieve even this.
Experts said other lifestyle factors, such as not smoking or drinking excessively, may have accounted for the drop in mortality, not just fruit and veg consumption, although the study authors said they had tried to account for this.
The University College London researchers used the National Health Survey, which collects data from people in England each year through questionnaires and nurse visits, to look at diet and lifestyle.
They analysed data between 2001 and 2008, which provided a snapshot rather than people’s continuing dietary habits throughout the seven-year period.
The study looked at general mortality as well as death from cancer, heart disease and stroke, and found risk of premature death from any cause decreased as fruit and veg consumption increased.
Fresh vegetables had the strongest protective effect, followed by salad and then fruit.
Fruit juice conferred no benefit, while canned fruit appeared to increase the risk of death – possibly because it is stored in sugary syrup, say the researchers.
Lead investigator Dr Oyinlola Oyebode said: “The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die – at any age.”
She said the size of the effect was “staggering”, but added that eating a few portions a day was still better than nothing.
Fruit and vegetables could have a protective effect against disease as they contained antioxidants, which repair damage to cells, she said.
Dr Oyebode added that both fruit and vegetables contained micronutrients and fibre, both of which are good for health.
She said a “portion” meant about 80g (3oz), meaning “one large fruit or a handful of smaller fruit or veg”.