You Still Aren't Eating Your Veggies

From the WebMD Archives

May 15, 2000 -- Americans still aren't eating their veggies despite all the efforts of health gurus like Dean Ornish, MD, the National Cancer Institute, and others who have tried to convince them that giving up a burger and fries is worth it, according to the CDC's latest "snapshot" study of Americans' eating habits.

But eating lots of fruit and vegetables has many proven benefits. "When you eat right, you have more energy, your sexual function improves, you think more clearly," says Ornish, who is clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a founder of its Center for Integrative Medicine.

The CDC study shows that health gurus like Ornish have mostly been preaching to the choir when advocating fruit and veggie benefits.

Only health-conscious adults -- and especially women -- have gotten the message, the CDC study says. Overweight and African-American people actually ate less of the good stuff during past years, says Ruowei Li, MD, MPH, an epidemiologist in the CDC's nutrition and physical activity division. Results from her nationwide survey were published in this month's American Journal of Public Health.

"Discouraging," Li tells WebMD. The survey, which reflects Americans' eating habits between 1990 and 1996, shows that 23% of adults in the surveyed states were eating fruits and veggies five times a day, up from 19% in 1990. Most were over age 65, and were white, college-educated, physically active, and nonsmokers. Also, most were women. There was a 5% increase in the number of women downing the good stuff. Men made a slightly more modest gain -- only 4%.

Inactive men and women did not change their eating habits at all -- still eating far less on average than recommended amounts of the good stuff.

The NCI's nationwide "5-A-Day" campaign was launched 10 years ago to preach a very important lesson, Li says. "So many studies have demonstrated that fruits and vegetables help prevent cancer and other chronic diseases. It's very well documented. So there's no doubt that it's a healthy food choice."

In her study, Li outlines the CDC's telephone survey conducted in 1996, which focused on adults in 16 states. More than 32,000 people were asked six questions:

  1. How often do you drink fruit juices, such as orange, grapefruit, or tomato?
  2. Not counting juice, how often do you eat fruit?
  3. How often do you eat green salad?
  4. How often do you eat potatoes, not including French fries, fried potatoes, or potato chips?
  5. How often do you eat carrots?
  6. Not counting carrots, potatoes, or salad, how many servings of vegetables do you usually eat?


Although there were some modest gains in fruit and vegetable consumption between 1990 and 1994, the improvement slowed to a less than 1% gain over the next two years. Researchers think that we can do better.

"I still have hope," says Li. "I see we can make a difference. We did see changes, so it implies that we can make people's lives different. We just need to continue our efforts."

As Ornish puts it, "A healthy diet is not about living longer, it's about living better ... about quality of life ... joy in life. It used to be thought that most sexual function was in your head, that it was psychological. Now we know it's mostly in your arteries. That's how Viagra works. ... When you change your diet, when you manage stress more effectively, when you quit smoking, it's not just your heart gets more blood flow."

Here are some tips for getting "5 a day" from Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

  • Start with breakfast. "Get a breakfast cereal that already contains fruit -- raisin bran or one with dried fruits -- then add a banana and a glass of orange juice," she tells WebMD. "That's a quick, fast breakfast that adds two or three servings of fruit a day.
  • Think of fruit as snacks. Carry an apple to work or keep a box of raisins in your desk drawer. Make those choices instead of the bag or pretzels or the candy bar in the afternoon.
  • Have a very veggie lunch. "One thing people could do is choose the vegetable plate at lunch," Rosenbloom says. "Get three different vegetables -- just keep in mind that macaroni and cheese is not a vegetable, even though it always seems to be a choice in those places."
  • Take advantage of quick fruit and veggie fixes. Grocery stores are trying to help you out. "Some of the better ones have salad-and-fruit bars that are great for take-out for your evening meal. And you can get pre-packaged salads, cut-up vegetables, baby carrots ... little salad tomatoes. Cut up an apple when you get home from work, for kids to snack on instead of chips. It just takes a little bit of thought and planning," she adds.
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