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Most U.S. Adults Not Eating Enough Vegetables

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Most U.S. Adults Not Eating Enough Vegetables

It’s some of the most basic, familiar dietary advice anyone is likely to receive: “Eat your fruits and vegetables.” Most people know they should be doing this, even if they’re not quite sure why it’s important. And this advice may be even more important for people with diabetes than for the general population, due to the beneficial health effects these foods offer.

Fruits and vegetables, broadly speaking, offer a wide range of health benefits. They provide dietary fiber that helps regulate the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, and can help moderate your blood cholesterol levels. They also contain a huge variety of essential nutrients, including not just vitamins and minerals, but phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory properties that aren’t readily available from other categories of food. And even though fruits contain varying amounts of sugar, in many cases, they contain beneficial nutrients that appear to cancel out some of the effects of sugar that would otherwise be harmful.

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So fruits and vegetables are generally very good for you, even if we’re still studying and learning why this is the case. But, as newly released survey results show, most adults in the United States aren’t eating enough of them — and fruit intake even appears to have dropped significantly in recent years.

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Vegetable intake lower than recommended

The new survey results, published by the National Center for Health Statistics, used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted between 2015 and 2018. This nationally representative survey of U.S. adults ages 20 and older included both an at-home interview about dietary and health habits, and a physical exam at a mobile examination center.

Researchers found that a surprisingly large proportion of participants — 95% — reported eating vegetables on a given day. But when they dug deeper into the numbers, vegetable intake was far less than adequate. Only 26% consumed dark green vegetables, while 79% consumed red or orange vegetables. And another 79% reported consuming “other vegetables.” Overall, the proportion of adults who ate dark green, red or orange, or other vegetables increased with their income level — with adults at or above 350% of the federal poverty line (the highest income category) consuming dark green vegetables at a rate of 32%, slightly higher than the average but still not great.

Women consumed both dark green and starchy vegetables at a higher rate than men, with 30% consuming dark green vegetables (versus 22% for men) and 52% consuming starchy vegetables (versus 49% for men) on a given day. No significant differences were seen based on sex in any of the other vegetable categories, or for overall vegetable intake.

When it came to fruit, only 67% of participants reported consuming any type on a given day. This represents a drop in fruit intake compared with similar surveys conducted in 1999 and 2000, when about 77% of adults reported consuming fruit daily, as noted in a HealthDay article. Participants reported consuming citrus, melons or berries at a rate of 30%, other whole fruit at a rate of 48%, and fruit juice at a rate of 31%.

Similar to what was seen with with vegetables, people with a higher income were more likely to eat fruit, with 73% of participants in the highest income category consuming it daily. This number for the highest income category was 37% for citrus, melons or berries, and 53% for other whole fruit. Women were more likely than men to consume any fruit (71% versus 64%), as well as citrus, melons or berries (34% versus 26%) and other whole fruit (50% versus 45%).

Boosting your fruit and vegetable intake

These survey results demonstrate that for many U.S. adults, there is a need to significantly increase your intake of certain categories of fruits and vegetables. According to the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the federal government, about 90% of the U.S. population doesn’t consume the recommended amount of vegetables, which is supposed to include servings from five different subgroups — dark green vegetables; red and orange vegetables; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy vegetables; and other vegetables.

According to the same guidelines, about 80% of the U.S. population doesn’t get enough fruit. At least half of your fruit intake should come from whole fruit, rather than juices or other forms like desserts.

Increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables can be as simple as snacking on sliced produce throughout the day, or adding chopped vegetables to your omelet or pasta dishes. For more tips on increasing your fruit and vegetable consumption, check out Your Mother Was Right: Eat Your Fruits and Veggies! 

Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating” and “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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