Health :: Few Americans eat enough fruits and veggies

Few Americans eat enough of either food, researchers find. Despite the known health benefits of fruits and vegetables, too few Americans are eating the recommended amounts of these foods, a new study finds.

Teenage boys are the worst offenders, with less than 1 percent of them getting the recommended intake. Children aged 2 to 3 do best, with 48 percent getting the recommended amount. But just 17 percent of women aged 51 to 70 meet the goal, and among other age groups, nearly 90 percent are falling short.

The findings are “not good,” said study author Patricia Guenther, a nutritionist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

Guenther and her colleagues looked at how many Americans ate enough fruits and vegetables under the previous recommendation — five servings a day — and how many were doing so under new guidelines released in 2005. The new guidelines — part of the USDA’s MyPyramid program — recommend eating two to six-and-a-half cups of fruits and vegetables a day, depending on your age and gender.

For instance, a 50-year-old man who exercises a half hour to an hour a day should eat two cups of fruits and three cups of vegetables daily. A 15-year-old girl who exercises a half hour to an hour a day should eat two-and-a-half cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit daily, according to the new guidelines.

For the study, Guenther said, “we used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III from 1999 to 2000. We had complete data on 8,070 people, ages 2 and up.”

When the researchers applied the previous five-a-day recommendations, only 40 percent of people met the mark.

The study findings are published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian in Tampa, Fla., and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said few of the people she counsels get sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Guenther said it’s not tough to get enough fruits and vegetables. First, she directs consumers to the new guidelines, which allow users to personalize their consumption recommendations.

Then, she said, it’s not difficult to fit recommended amount of fruits and vegetables into your diet. During the summer, for instance, she said, “I eat berries on my cereal in the morning, take a piece of fruit for a snack, and I make sure I have fruit or juice in the evening. When I want to have dessert, I try to make it fruit-based. The other day I made a peach crisp with whole wheat flour and oatmeal. And, like most women, I love salads.”

Added Sass: “People gravitate toward the ‘easy’ fruits and vegetables, such as bananas and bagged salad mixes.” She sees nothing wrong with that, but encourages variety, too.

Another study in the same issue of the journal found that people who eat salads tend to have above-average intakes of vitamin C, as well as vitamin D, folic acid, lycopene and carotenoids.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Louisiana State University looked at data from nearly 18,000 participants in the same survey Guenther used, but for the years 1988 to 1994. For every serving of salad women ate, they were 165 percent more likely to meet the daily recommend intake of vitamin C; for every salad men ate, they were 119 percent more likely to do so. The recommended amount of vitamin C is 90 milligrams for men and 75 milligrams for women. The study was partially funded by the Association for Dressings and Sauces, an industry group.

A third study in the journal found that young adults are choosing portion sizes larger than those selected by young adults two decades ago — in some cases 25 percent larger. Oversized portions are often blamed for contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Sass said she sees such “portion distortion” all the time. “People confuse a portion that is provided to them [at a restaurant or at a college dorm cafeteria] with a portion that is an appropriate size for them.”

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