Monday, September 27, 2010

New survey: America still isn't eating "enough" vegetables. But why?

This article in the NYT originally, and then in our local paper answers 'why' Americans aren't eating more veggies– but doesn't realize it. It's not for lack of trying, for lack of public health campaigns or effort or money spent on getting out the word. It's not that there aren't enough posters in our schools showing cool kids eating veggies, or exhorting kids to eat more veggies, or smiley faces 'eating the rainbow...'

About 1 in 4 Americans gets veggies three or more times a day. About 1 in 10 teens get the recommended amount. As someone working with families (and according to nationwide surveys) I know that it is not for lack of knowledge. Parents want their kids to eat well and have good nutrition, but they don't know HOW to support it (and many struggle financially to do so. But I will put the issue of food insecurity aside for a moment.) What American doesn't know what they "should" be eating? What parent doesn't lament the battles over broccoli?

One expert realizes, "There is nothing you can say to get Americans to eat more veggies." -duh
(I would add, there is very little we can say to get our children to eat more veggies...)

The author and experts assert Americans would eat more veggies if they were cheaper and tasted better. A nurse admits she won't eat veggies because they make her "gag." (I'd love to know if she was forced to try veggies or clean her plate as a child...) They don't explicitly get to it, but the following quotes hint at part of the solution. Read these and guess what is missing...

"The moment you have something fresh, you have to schedule your life around it."

"An apple you can just grab, but what am I going to do, put a piece of kale in my purse?"

What jumps out? What is missing?

Sitting down to meals and structure...

As I have gone through my training (my reading, now being lucky enough to be a part Ellyn Satter's clinical faculty with access to their incredible breadth and years of experience, seeing my own meals and family's eating, working with clients...) I have come to believe that without structure, without the habit of saying, "I am going to sit down now and make myself/may family something to eat" (or sit down to take-out or a frozen meal) that improving variety and successfully adding things like veggies is almost impossible.

The parents I meet and talk to want their children to be healthy and to eat well. They try really hard to get them to eat veggies. They bribe, they hide, they sneak, they beg, they threaten, they reward with stickers or treats-and for the most part, it's making their kids like veggies less, not more. Remember that how to feed is the key to the what. That notion of the Division of Responsibility, which is the basis for the feeding relationship all but requires meals and structure.

The structure has to come first. The meals have to come first. They don't have to be fancy, or "fresh" (canned and frozen are just fine) but you can't have a meal in your purse or strapped into a car-seat. (You can eat that way, but it's not a meal where you can tune-in to hungry and full, tune in to appetite, explore new foods, flavors and eventually improve variety.)

If you're grabbing Goldfish on the go (and who hasn't for the kiddos or even ourselves) it's easy to wander around contented for the moment with Goldfish. But, sit down, pay attention to the food, and the question, "What might taste good to me with these goldfish, or to little Timmy?" might come up. The answer might be, a cut up apple, or some microwaved frozen squash with butter, salt and brown sugar, or a sliced tomato...

What do you think?


  1. Sounds to me like choosing what will be the priority. Sitting down and being conscious of what you are serving - is that what you are saying?

    So many people are growing veggies now with the economic challenges but I hear they don't know what to do with them.

    I'm finding I like eating at home better than out as I can get as many veggies as I want at home but so many restaurants are REALLY skimpy with them.

    Thanks for all you do!

  2. I think another issue is so many outlets act as if the addition of, to use your example above, "butter, salt and brown sugar" to vegetables totally negates their health benefits. Like you can have a salad, but if you dare put a reasonable amount of full fat dressing on it, well - you might as well be eating lard straight out of the can. So you have people trying to choke down plain steamed veggies and thinking there is something wrong with them if they don't care for them.

  3. I think that's easier said than done, esp. when both parents work outside the home. Never mind that a whole food and plant based diet is more expensive (calorie for calorie) than one of processed foods. Frankly, I think the larger issue is that subsidies for corn and soybeans have driven down the price of processed foods and would like to see government subsidies for vegetables and fruits instead.

    Our "nutrition" problem in this country is so much more complicated than "just eat more vegetables" unfortunately.

    Thanks for posting this!

  4. "I have come to believe that without structure...that improving variety and successfully adding things like veggies is almost impossible."

    I don't know. As a single person who eats small 'meals' throughout the day according to my hunger levels, I don't find this is true in my case. Many of my spontaneous mini-meals are things like spinach, beets, or other boiled or steamed veggies. I suppose I'm non-typical though, as I'm a unmarried vegan on a limited income, and there aren't many pre-packaged things I can eat anyway.

    As for kids, though I don't have them myself, parents in the vegan community don't seem to, in general, have the same kind of problems getting their children to eat a variety of healthy foods as parents in omnivorous families do. Of course, there's the occasional child with other issues, like an autism spectrum disorder, who is hyper-sensitive about tastes and textures. But, on the whole, my impression is that kids raised on an exclusively vegan diet seem to adore fruits and veggies.

  5. I agree Becky, eating out there aren't many choices for veggies. it goes with what Anne says, it seems like your choices are steamed and virtuous, 'Should' veggies that taste gross, or deep-fried green beans that are fun and virtuous (?)
    Our fear of all fat, sugar etc doesn't help. Many people don't know how to cook veggies to make them delicious, or as other readers point out, they are expensive calorie for calorie...

  6. Socioconvert, you have found a way to eat that works for you and is part of the definition of normal meals. It sounds like you have a good handle on knowing when you need to eat and when you are done. Many folks have lost touch with those sensations and structure is an amazing tool to help get back in tune with those sensations.I wonder if you work from home? I'd love to know how you plan and manage it. Feeding kids on demand without structure is really hard. Most kids don't do well that way. Kids eat best with reliable eating times and repeated opportunities to check in with hungry, full etc. I have had vegetarian and even vegan clients where parents do struggle, but often that was out of nutritional concern and pressure. (Meaning mostly the parents worried the child wasn't getting enough protein or other nutrient and the parents pressured to cover those nutritional bases.) I would imagine that vegans who love veggies and eat and prepare those foods for their families would have kids who grow up to do the same if they are fed in a supportive way. Kids do grow up to like the foods parents like, if they are fed in a positive, matter-of-fact way without pressure. I love your observations and am glad to hear it. I'm not aware of any studies comparing the groups, but would be interested. It takes in general a lot of planning and effort to feed and eat a nutritionally balanced diet with restrictions, whether it is to avoid meats or allergens etc. Perhaps what those families are lucky to have is the planning, structure and sense that eating is a pleasure and not just an after-thought. thanks for the comments!

  7. CTJEn,. You are right, right, right on many levels. It IS really hard, but maybe we need baby steps, or to change expectations. Maybe dinner is later, or canned... Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family is a great how-to and is respectful of the realieits for many families. Off to a meeting, would love to say more! Thanks!

  8. One of the things that struck me about the article was that they were concerned that not enough people eat vegetables three times a day. Do you know anyone who eats vegetables for breakfast? I don't... except maybe for potatoes or beans on toast!

    This seems to me like they deliberately went looking for the most extreme lifestyle (eating veggies three or more times a day - i.e. for every meal and possibly snacks too) and then were "shocked" when they found out that only a small percentage of people do this. If they'd asked how many people eat vegetables once or twice a day then I'm sure it would have been close to 100%.

    Also, since when is a potato not a vegetable? I know its a "carb", but its a plant that grows in the ground! So many comments on that article condemned potatoes as a "bad" food.

    Also, to be honest, does anyone actually eat 9 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, like the recommendations say?

  9. I think that some of us get more veggies than we think. That tomato sauce on pizza? That counts. Spaghetti? Tomato again. (Yeah, I know it's technically a fruit.) Don't forget salsa of any sort. Fries and onion rings? There are veggies in there. Chili, soups, stews, pot pies are rarely veggie-free.

    And for what it's worth, you can now get those fried green beans in the freezer section. I happen to know that if you throw some in the oven, put them on a plate with a little dish of dressing, and then set them on the table where a gaggle of pre-teen girls are working on a school project, they will eat them all up and look around for more.

    If someone is trying to tell you that a vegetable isn't a vegetable unless it's raw or steamed, ignore them.

    This is slightly off-topic, but it relates to Dr. Rowell's assertion that canned and fresh veggies are fine. A few years ago I was a young wife stuck up north in the backwoods of South Carolina for eighteen months. To amuse myself I took some extension service classes offered by Clemson. One was a food preservation class, another had to do with family nutrition. We earned those "Master" certifications that agricultural college extension programs give out. The classes were taught by women with PhDs in home economics who did research and such. I learned some fascinating things.

    One is that proper deep frying is often the best cooking method for retaining vitamins in fresh vegetables. By "proper" I mean at a high enough temperature to promptly "seal" the outside--often a batter/coating, but sometimes not--then cook the vegetable itself very quickly in hot fat. You can accomplish this at home, but it's an even better bet at a restaurant and far less messy. As I recall sauteeing was second, steaming was further down the list, boiling was lower than steaming if you didn't ingest the cooking liquid, but higher if you did--like in a soup or something. The water leaches lots of goodies out--moreso than an oil. Further, some vitamins and most minerals were molecularly unbound by the cooking process and made more bioavailable than in raw vegetables. Vitamin C, a fragile water-soluable thing, was usually the biggest loser in the longer cooking processes, but nearly every other nutrient was better. We were reminded that this was why a squeeze of lemon was traditional in water, tea, or many cocktails, and why real lemonade was such a popular drink in past generations despite the expense. That's how people easily made up the Vitamin C deficit. (Sugar, BTW, in any form including alcohol, doesn't interfere with vitamin C absorption int he human body as far as we know.)

    Another thing I found interesting was that Clemson had participated in several agricultural college studies on the retention of nutrients in various forms of point-of-sale vegetables. Home garden vegetables, prepared and eaten same day, had the most intact nutrients. Next came farmer's market vegetables from local farms. Duh, right? But what came after that was news to me. The next best was grocery store frozen veggies. After that was a toss-up: canned and fresh in the grocery produce section were pretty well tied overall, but some of the "fresh" veggies were big losers even at this point. Broccoli was one. Fresh broccoli lost out to both frozen and canned (and I don't think I've ever eaten canned broccoli that I know of). Turns out that broccoli is pretty sturdy a veg. and the average time it took for it to get from farm to purchase was nearly six weeks! By that time nearly all the vitamin C had degraded, and everthing else was a lot worse, too, no matter how good and fresh it looked.

    My point is that you may declare tomato sauce on pizza or over pasta, refried beans, salsa, frozen broccoli with cheese sauce, fried green beans, fried whatever--and maybe even the lime in your margarita--and many, many, other vegetable products, VEGGIES.

    And actually good quality ketchup counts, too.

  10. All I can say is that 1 oz. of Pepper Jack cheese melted on almost any vegetable means my husband will eat it--not only without complaint, but actually asking me if he can have more. That tiny bit of extra zip that the cheese with jalapenos gives to veggies is all that's needed.

    Fortunately, we sit down to eat as a family at least 4-5 times per week, and even if we are not at home we are often dining with friends. I even find that we both typically eat less when with friends, probably because the conversation makes us slow down as we eat and we pay more attention to signals that we are full.

    It's not so easy for me at work, though. Often meetings are scheduled during lunch time and I find myself not able to take time out to eat. I have learned, though, to bring at least a part of my lunch (yogurt or fruit are easy) to meetings with me when I have no other choice, and I've found that most others are very accepting of that and even wish they had done the same.