Most people know fruits and vegetables are good for them. But, according to a new study, few people actually eat the daily two cups of fruit and two and a half to three cups of vegetables recommended by the USDA.
A new report by the international mega-bank Rabobank found, "Despite efforts by governments to promote the benefits of a healthy diet, consumption of fruit and vegetables in Western Europe and the U.S. has declined over the past decade."
The report says this is because of "lower incomes and perceived price increases," not to mention competition from processed and convenience foods.
Elizabeth Pivonka is looking forward, however to a better day for fruits and vegetables. She, in fact, sees a lot of good going on right now — notwithstanding the Rabobank report.
"Consumers are, in principle, very positive minded about healthy eating," says Pivonka,the president and CEO of the nonprofit Produce for Better Health Foundation. "In all things that I have seen, it is continuing to trend that way and has been for several years."
She thinks people have good intentions and says that there is some good news in how much vegetables people are consuming.
"We've looked at that same data set (as the Rabobank report), and we know that daily consumption has gone up over the last 30 years by about half a cup a person, at least in the United States," Pivonka says. "Some subgroups are eating more."
Overall, consumption of fruits and vegetables hasn't budged much up or down. But according to a study using the same base data from 2010, called "State of the Plate: 2010 Study on America's Consumption of Fruits & Vegetables," several groups have increased their fruit consumption by at least 5 percent since 2004. These subgroups include children ages 2 to 12, males 18-34, and females 18 to 54.
Teens and the elderly, however, are eating fewer fruits and vegetables.
But overall, the rate is flat. The State of the Plate report says the average person consumes 1.8 cups of fruits and vegetables per day, eating a total of about 660 cups annually. Sixty percent of those cups are vegetables. Forty percent are fruit.
"No doubt it is not where it needs to be," Pivonka says. "It is about half of where it needs to be here in the U.S."
Cost is one of the big obstacles given for why people do not eat more fruits and vegetables — mostly because of perception instead of reality.
"There is this misconception that you can't eat healthy on a budget," Pivonka says, "which is just wrong."
The USDA did an analysis of what it would cost to eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables and found people can eat, on average, for about 50 cents per cup — meaning people can eat the recommended amount each day for about $2 to $2.50. "That may not mean that you buy raspberries in the wintertime," Pivonka says, "but you can eat healthy on a budget."
The real expense of fruits and vegetables comes from poor planning.
"Fresh isn't expensive unless I have to throw it away," Pivonka says. "That is why canned and frozen fruits and vegetables fit very nicely into somebody's eating plan."
People buy fresh and eat it at the beginning of the week and, if it runs out, they can supplement their meals with frozen and canned vegetables and fruits.
Pivonka says it isn't easy for fruits and vegetables to compete with processed foods such as granola bars and chips.
In many respects, this is a marketing problem. Processed foods are readily accessible and have bigger marketing dollars promoting them. The more unique a product is, the easier it is to promote it and charge more money to eager customers. To make a food product unique, something needs to be done to it, such as adding salt or sugar or puffing it up or flattening it into a chip.
The Produce for Better Health Foundation developed a national action plan in 2005 where it outlined 80 different strategies to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. "It isn't one thing that is going to change it," Pivonka says, "it is several things across the board: Marketing, communication, education as well as making sure fruits and vegetables are available where people eat. It needs to be on menus, it's at the airport, it's in vending machines."
Making it normal
A recent study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found an easy way to make kids eat more vegetables. The researchers found that if you offer kids a dip flavored with spices — such as pizza flavored or ranch dip, the children were more likely to try vegetables. They even would eat vegetables they didn't like. Classifying a vegetable as "yummy" boosted it from 31 percent to 64 percent.
The "State of the Plate" study also suggested "setting out a fruit bowl; having vegetables cut up and ready to eat in the refrigerator; involving children in selecting, growing or preparing fruits and vegetables and hiding them in other foods."
The key for Pivonka is to make eating fruits and vegetables part of the norm.
"We've tried to change our discussion points here so that rather than saying, 'Oh, nobody is eating fruits and vegetables,' we try to point out the positive: Children and their parents are eating more fruits and vegetables," Pivonka says. "So when parents hear that other parents are feeding their children fruits and vegetables, they think they should too. People follow the norm."
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