Americans really don’t eat their greens
Somehow I missed this story the first time the NY Times covered it, but only saw it because KJ at XX blogged about it. I haven’t felt this far out of the mainstream of America since realizing that most people thought “Avatar” was a swell movie. According to the CDC, only 26% of Americans get 3 servings of vegetables a day. And even then, that falls short of the recommended 4-5 servings. That sounds like a lot, until you read what a “serving” is, and it’s pretty small. Half a cup of dense veggies or a cup of greens, half a cup of beans, even a piece of lettuce and some tomato and a sandwich does it. Granted, I’m a vegetarian, but I would find it hard not to get up to the minimum every day. By lunch today, I had over 5 servings of veggies. The serving size is so small that I find it hard to sympathize with KJ’s point:
It’s easy to see why: three meals a day. Who eats vegetables for breakfast? Brown bag lunch—sure, salad works, but how many times a week are you going to put one together, or carefully construct a sandwich of avocado and sprouts? That leaves dinner, and here, according to the NYT’s excellent Jane E. Brody, are your options: “half a cup of cut-up or cooked vegetables, one cup of fresh greens, half a cup of cooked dried beans, or, if you must, six ounces of vegetable juice.”
If you eat a side salad with lunch instead of fries, that’s like 2-3 servings, though. You’d probably be ahead of 74% of Americans if you dress your sandwich with pickles, tomatoes, and lettuce. If you eat home-cooked meals at all, I’d think you’d be getting to three servings of vegetables, unless you actively avoid cooking them. Sure, I knew some people didn’t like vegetables, but is that tendency really that widespread? I remember in college, one of my roommates was dating a guy the rest of us didn’t like. And one of my roommates bitched about him by saying, “Have you ever noticed that he never eats any vegetables?” We were a bunch of kids who ate a bunch of trash, like kids do, and yet we still thought it weird to simply not eat vegetables. A diet of just meat and carbs seemed kind of medieval.
On lefty blogs that write about food, like this one, a lot of the focus is on food deserts and the actual inability of many poorer Americans to get healthy food in their diets. Without discounting that dismal reality, I have to point out that 74% of Americans don’t live in a food dessert that actually block your access to fresh produce. Also, not all veggies—or even most—are fresh. There are canned veggies and frozen veggies, too, and while they’re as nutritionally dense as fresh veggies, they’re actually more than enough for most people’s dietary needs. The ugly truth is that a lot of this isn’t just lack of access, but a nationwide cultural phenomenon where the eating of vegetables has simply fallen by the wayside, and people really do subsist on sweets, carbs, and meat and not much else. Maybe some fruits? But honestly, even that I’m skeptical of, because if you’re not eating broccoli or tomatoes, the odds that you’re reaching for apples is even lower. I think vegetables are easier to get on a daily basis than fruits because they fit into the 3-meal-a-day schedule much better. Fresh fruit tends to be more of a snack food.
The need for widespread cultural change is both immediate and depressing. Poor nutrition is related to 4 out of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, and plays a big role in the top three. But this is clearly not something that will be that easy to fix with just policy changes, since a lot of people with access to affordable vegetables are still skipping them and going for the bag of chips. Not that I think the policy ideas to improve nutrition are a bad idea, but clearly way more needs to happen than simply targeting food deserts or even remaking the agricultural subsidy structures.