If all the pre-cut vegetables and fruits in the grocery store and news stories about the importance of produce for health has led you to believe that you’re the only one not eating many vegetables and fruits, relax. Once again, a study shows that most Americans aren’t, even though relatively minor changes in increasing fruits and vegetable consumption could pay off big in good health.
The latest study suggesting we’re still more talk than action when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables compares findings over the last 20 years from NHANES, a large federal diet and health survey. Nutrition experts urged us to aim higher when results from the 1988 to 1994 NHANES showed that among Americans ages 40 to 74, only 42 percent met the minimum recommendation of at least five servings of vegetables and fruits daily. Instead of increasing, the 2001 to 2006 NHANES showed that 26 percent of adults this age met the minimum.
The findings of other dietary surveys may not seem quite as grim but show the same overall result. When state health departments surveyed more than a million respondents by telephone, they found essentially no change over the last 15 years in the proportion of adults aged 18 and older who met the five-a-day minimum: 24.6 percent in 1994 and 25.0 percent in 2005. This survey gives a somewhat incomplete picture of produce consumption, however, since it asked people how often they ate vegetables and fruit without any indication of portion size. Someone who ate two cups of vegetables at dinner would be listed as consuming the same amount as someone who ate a few forkfuls.
The telephone survey suggests that where vegetable consumption decreased, it was often due to a drop in potato consumption. Are people only hearing half the messages about vegetable and fruit consumption? Perhaps people responded to low-carb messages about over-reliance on potatoes, but forgot the message to swap for other vegetables.
Likewise, were people who decreased juice consumption responding to messages about its concentrated calories and sugar, but missing the message to swap juice beyond one small glass a day for eating more solid fruit?
One strategy to increase vegetable and fruit consumption is to start with times you already eat them, increasing their portion size and cutting back on other foods. For example, the New American Plate approach recommended by the American Institute for Cancer Research calls for making vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans at least two-thirds of your plate at each meal.
Research suggests that many people aren’t aware of how many vegetables and fruits we need for health. Adults can lower their cancer risk and improve health by reaching the minimum target of at least five servings (about 2½ cups) of vegetables and fruits daily. But for optimal overall health and easier weight control, once you reach that target, most of us should aim for seven to 10 standard servings (3½ to 5 cups).
For others, studies show it takes more than just knowledge; until people see produce available and affordable and know how to serve it in ways they expect to enjoy, they are likely to stay stuck. The barriers are more often a matter of perception. Produce need not be expensive if you buy what’s in season, and choose plain, frozen produce when it’s less expensive. And if you reduce purchases of expensive meat and convenience foods, that money can be spent on fruits and vegetables.