Americans STILL Aren’t Eating Their Veggies

Last month, The New York Times reported that despite 20 years of “public health initiatives, stricter government dietary guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the ease of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a comprehensive nationwide behavioral study of fruit and vegetable consumption. Only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day, it concluded. (And no, that does not include French fries.)

These results fell far short of health objectives set by the federal government a decade ago. The amount of vegetables Americans eat is less than half of what public health officials had hoped. Worse, it has barely budged since 2000.

The government recommends four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables (which equals nine servings) for people who eat 2,000 calories a day.

People know that vegetables are good for them and can improve health, but they are also seen as a lot of work and have a much quicker “expiration date” than processed foods. Even if you buy veggies with the best of intentions, if you don’t consume them fast enough, they are doomed to rot in your refrigerator. I think this is something we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another. A survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by White Wave Foods indicates that almost half of us leave our fruit in the refrigerator until it rots. I can only assume that even more vegetables suffer a similar fate.

At Mother Nature Network, Katherine Butler asks, “what is the price of not eating vegetables?”

Mostly, it means that Americans are lacking in vital nutrients. Antioxidants and fiber fill vegetables, as well as key nutrients such as potassium, beta-carotene, iron, folate, magnesium, calcium and vitamins A, C, E and K. Fiber can reduce cholesterol; potassium, found in foods like spinach, helps blood pressure. Vitamin C helps gums and teeth, while vitamin E fights against premature aging.

Apparently, orange veggies are something we should be focusing on too. According to The Ohio State University Extension blog:

Orange vegetables, like pumpkin, squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes contain nutrients and phytonutrients found in no other group of vegetables. That’s why experts recommend we eat at least 2 cups a week of orange vegetables. How many do you eat? If you’re not eating enough, now is the perfect time of year to start!  All types of winter squash — acorn, butternut, hubbard, etc. are in season and cheap.  Pumpkins and canned pumpkins are stocking the shelves. Carrots and sweet potatoes are found commonly throughout the year.

I’m not sure there’s a solution for getting adult Americans to consume more vegetables. They know they are healthy, but they still don’t eat them. Even with convenient options like prepackaged servings of broccoli and bagged salads available, they aren’t biting (pun intended). Until Americans make eating vegetables a priority, it’s not going to happen. After all, you can’t force feed them. Maybe we could hide vegetables in french fries? Hmm. Probably not. Although that is a technique some people use to get children to eat their veggies (remember Jessica Seinfeld’s book Deceptively Delicious?), though not everyone agrees with it.

Organic Authority points out the important of fruits and vegetables for children. “A diet high in fruits and vegetables is important for optimal child growth, maintaining a healthy weight, and prevention of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers—all of which currently contribute to healthcare costs in the United States,” says William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, director of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.

Lisa Johnson mentions that some high schools have added baby carrot vending machines next to the typical junk food machines and wonders if the packaging (designed to look similar to a potato chip bag) will entice kids to buy them. Lisa says, “I have to say I think it’s a good idea. It might seem a little condescending to some but we are visual creatures and we react positively to colorful items that grab our attention while glossing over the ho-hum stuff. Shouldn’t we just capitalize on human nature to achieve a greater good?”

The Huffington Post reports “The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced what it called a major new initiative, giving $2 million to food behavior scientists to find ways to use psychology to improve kids’ use of the federal school lunch program and fight childhood obesity.” Some schools are employing psychology tricks in hopes of getting teens to make healthier lunch choices in the cafeteria. Cornell researches have dubbed these little tricks a success: “Keep ice cream in freezers without glass display tops so the treats are out of sight. Move salad bars next to the checkout registers, where students linger to pay, giving them more time to ponder a salad. And start a quick line for make-your-own subs and wraps, as Corning East High School in upstate New York did.”

Perhaps the veggie avoidance can be traced back to infancy. I wrote in 2007 about a study that showed breast-fed babies are more likely to like fruits and vegetables (if their mother ate them while breastfeeding) than their formula-fed counterparts.

Senior author of the study Julie A. Mennella, PhD said, “The best predictor of how much fruits and vegetables children eat is whether they like the tastes of these foods. If we can get babies to learn to like these tastes, we can get them off to an early start of healthy eating. … It’s a beautiful system. Flavors from the mother’s diet are transmitted through amniotic fluid and mother’s milk. So, a baby learns to like a food’s taste when the mother eats that food on a regular basis.”

However, regardless of whether your baby is breast-fed or formula fed, the article points out the importance of offering your baby “plenty of opportunities to taste fruits and vegetables as s/he makes the transition to solid foods by giving repeated feeding exposures to these healthy foods.”

What’s the answer to get Americans to eat their veggies? I vote for focusing on the children. Perhaps if Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution continues, not only will children start eating healthier, but their new habits may rub off on their parents too.

Photo via Masahiro Ihara on Flickr

Cross-posted on BlogHer.

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20 thoughts on “Americans STILL Aren’t Eating Their Veggies”

  1. There’s been so much in the news lately about plant-based diets as preventative care for some of the most common and widespread killers in Western society.

    There’s this one, from the Huff Post:

    And then an interview with Bill Clinton, who’s cut most animal products out of his diet and seen a great improvement in his health:

    Like you said, we know it’s good for us to eat vegetables. But there’s nobody marketing them at us like they’re marketing Cheesy Blasters and Pizza Pups or whatever. That stuff makes consumers sick and makes companies rich.

    Preventative care isn’t lucrative, so the big corporations that sell us our processed foods and medicines aren’t interested. They invest instead in these elusive “cures” that everyone likes to race for, and then you end up with things like the Susan G. Komen for the Cure KFC Chicken Bucket.

    If we all made a concerted effort to eat fewer animal products and by-products, we’d have a huge impact on greenhouse gas emission, international food security, and our own health. Not eating as much meat and cheese means there’s more space on the plate for vegetables.

  2. I agree with this so much. I make it a constant goal of mine to expose my son to as many different fruits and vegetables as possible.

    We joined a CSA and get a weekly box filled with all kinds of fresh produce. He thinks it’s fun to find out what the farm sent. As a result, I can get him to eat almost anything (depending on his mood, of course, since he is a 4 year old).

  3. I said this on FB, but I think it’s worth repeating. All the access in the world doesn’t do any good if people don’t know how to cook the vegetables or are too intimidated to try.

    My daughter’s preschool class had a field trip last week to a farm, where we rode a hayride around th various fields and picked produce. Several of the moms sitting around me grilled me on what I planned to do with my bags of food, because they had no idea what to do with arugula, turnips, radishes, yellow wax beans or fresh herbs. Cooking is something that comes easy to me, but vegetables that don’t come in a bag from the freezer are a mystery to a lot of families.

  4. I have to say starting when they are young is so important. My kids have only known life eating veggies and fruit instead of junk and they love it! I love that they choose salads for dinner, or when there is a chip & dip tray or a veggie tray, they will go for the veggies & hummus 100% of the time! I think introducing them to all sorts of colors and varieties is so important and they even get excited about what to pick out at the store. Maybe we’re weird? But I hope it’s a new kind of normal!


  5. I also wanted to add that I feel like my kids are fortunate that they’ve been exposed to so many foods at a young age that I never heard of or had until my 20s. Hopefully that will help them eat a good variety of foods throughout their lives.

    Oh, and Kayris – Like I said back to you on FB, I had no idea how to prepare a turnip either. ;P Thanks for the ideas. 🙂

  6. I think we eat a lot of veggies in our house. And then I made a 6 course Ethiopian meal a few weekends ago. One grain (teff for injera), one meat (chicken in one dish) and then I used an egglplant, 6 onions, 3 bell peppers, garlic, sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes, green beans, cabbage, tomatoes, fresh ginger, and probably a few other vegetables that I can’t remember! My counter top was a freakin’ cornucopia of veggies during the preparation process. And it really highlighted to me how traditional foods can be so veggie heavy!

  7. I remember the day I was watching a friend’s child, and the little girl was shocked when I informed her that vegetables were a required part of lunch. She didn’t make anymore of a fuss about them than that, but I suspect she was used to being able to say no to veggies… or just testing me.

    I find it pretty easy to deal with unfamiliar vegetables. That’s what recipe websites are for!

  8. I think education about how to cook vegetables other than par boiling is the key. After picking the last of the vegetables from my in-law’s garden, my sister in law was stumped on what to do with her portion of summer squash.

    I think catering to picky kid eaters is also why so many people claim that they don’t like vegetables. I’m not saying that you should force feed it to your child but as a kid I wasn’t allowed to claim I didn’t like something without taking a bite of it first. Based on my focus group of 9 nieces and nephews, the ones who refuse vegetables and claim they don’t like any of them are the ones that were catered too. Heck if I got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every time I said I hated a vegetable, I don’t think I’d be the adventurous eater I am now.

  9. Milehimama – That’s very interesting (and could get me started on a whole high fructose corn syrup rant — cuz all we grow in this country is corn that no one can eat, but I’ll restrain myself). I wonder if that takes into account backyard gardens, etc. Would love to know where you read it.

  10. Raising kids to love veg would definitely work but I think one of the reasons adults don’t like or eat veg is that what you find in the produce section of the super market is gross. It tastes terrible compared to its fresh counterpart. I thought I didn’t like carrots until I ate one out of the garden. Same with cucumbers and raw tomatoes for sure. When I eat a salad from my garden I eat it practically plain b/c the green are just so delicious. When I eat one from the supermarket or in a restaurant, I drench it in dressing just to choke it down. Potatoes and onions from the store are about the only thing that I think tastes decent and even then, a fresh potato or onion is so rich and flavorful, it’s like a completely different vegetable.

  11. Milehimamma: It’s a sin, isn’t it? But there aren’t any subsidies for broccoli or kale or sweet potatoes, so there’s very little incentive to grow anything besides genetically modified corn and soybeans.

    Kayris: You’re absolutely correct. Parsnips, leeks, cabbage–this stuff can be intimidating, and setting your cooking experiment down in front of kids who groan and whine over it can be incredibly dispiriting!

    So what do we do? Community cooking classes, perhaps, but who hasn’t heard a friend or co-worker claim they’re “too busy” to eat anything but processed food? I think we’ve got to start younger.

    A combined cooking and nutrition curriculum started in grade school seems the smartest way to go. Engage kids in preparing healthy, simple food. A lot of kids love to cook! But this needs to be taken seriously–kids aren’t dumb, and they realize something is off when one teacher preaches about the sins of processed food and then they’re led into a lunchroom full of tater tots, pizza pockets, and cardboard burger patties where “fruit” often means a bruised (and gross!) apple or tinned peaches in syrup.

    Argh, I get so upset when I think about this stuff!

  12. This is really upsetting, I agree. I would love to see more “home ec” type classes that let kids experiment with cooking veggies in different ways. I’m lucky in that my kids are fanatics for my roast green beans.

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