Teens Don’t Eat Enough Fruits and Vegetables

Healthnotes Newswire (April 5, 2007)—The consensus is clear: Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, and the problem begins in childhood. Two recent studies report that few adults get recommended levels of fruit and vegetable in their diets, and another found that the problem is getting worse among teens.

Vegetables and fruits are critical components of a healthy diet. Overwhelming evidence shows that a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables protects against obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and many other chronic diseases.

Whether they are green and leafy like kale and chard, orange or yellow roots like carrots and sweet potatoes, or made up of florets like broccoli and cauliflower, vegetables are loaded with minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Fruits, too, contain minerals like potassium and fibers such as pectin, and colorful fruits like blueberries and cherries are rich in antioxidant pigments called flavonoids.

The 2005 edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a publication of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services, recommends five servings of vegetables (one serving = 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked) and four servings of fruit (one serving = 1 medium fresh fruit or 1/2 cup frozen, canned, or juice) per day for adults. Authorities speculate that adolescents might need even more because of their bodies’ rapid growth.

Despite the initiation of a national fruit and vegetable campaign in 1991, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a report of findings that only about one-third of adults eat at least two servings of fruit per day and just over one-quarter eat at least three servings of vegetables per day—the minimum recommended amounts.

Another study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, reported similarly dismal findings. This study spanned two decades and surveyed almost 25,000 adults, and found that only 11% of adults reached the minimum recommendations for both fruit and vegetable intake. The researchers also noted that 65% of the people surveyed said they don’t eat any fruits and 25% said they don’t eat any vegetables on a typical day.

Worse, it appears that our poor eating habits are being passed down to our children. Another new study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, analyzed the eating habits of 2,105 middle and high school-aged kids who filled out food questionnaires at the beginning of the study and again about five years later. The results? Teens in the study did not eat recommended amounts of fruits or vegetables at the outset, and the amount dropped further over the five-year study period, diminishing in all age groups over time.

The authors suggest the need for more interventions targeting children, adolescents, young adults, and their parents. “In addition to educational interventions, environmental changes are needed to support adolescents in making healthy food choices in their homes, schools, and greater communities,” the authors concluded.

Charles Fenton, a public health expert and nutrition educator, agrees. “The biggest obstacle to healthy eating is that society does not support it. Kids are faced with an alluring array of junk food every day, at home, at school, and through the media. Somehow this needs to be changed. Parents that serve—and eat—healthy meals are role models for teens, and in this way encourage them to choose fruits and vegetables over less nutritious foods,” he said. “Another angle is engaging teens in gardening and cooking. These activities have been found to interest kids of this age and to yield long-term benefits by leading to better eating habits.”

(CDC Media Relations, March 15, 2007, Am J Prev Med 2007;32:257–63, and Am J Prev Med 2007;32:147–50)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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