America’s Dangerous Diet
Americans Ignore Advice to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables, Less Meat
Despite doctors’ best efforts to educate the public on the value of a well-balanced, plant-based diet, Americans eat fewer servings of fruits and vegetables today than they did at the start of the decade, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC estimates that in 2009, just 32.5% of American adults consumed fruit two or more times per day, and a paltry 26.3% consumed vegetables three or more times per day. Those numbers show a noticeable decline since 2000, when 34.4% of Americans reported eating fruit more than twice a day, and 26.7% ate the recommended three or more servings of vegetables.
Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, Americans consume more than 220 pounds of meat per year per person — that’s more than twice the global average. The amount of meat the average American eats each year has increased more than 50% since 1950, when yearly consumption was measured at just 144 pounds per person.
Americans’ increasingly meat-heavy, plant-poor diet threatens not only public health, but the health of the planet.
Vegetables, Fruit, and Health
A few years ago, athlete, writer and researcher Dan Buettner partnered with National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging to study the lifestyles of the world’s longest-lived people. In his subsequent book, The Blue Zones, Buettner revealed that, across the globe, cultures that promote longevity share one very important thing in common — traditional diets that are high in fruits, vegetables and legumes, and low in meat.
Buettner was certainly not the first expert to notice that diets high in fruits and vegetables seem to promote long lives and good health. Several previous scientific studies have shown that the fiber, nutrients and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables prevent cancer and heart disease. And the same new CDC report that reveals Americans on average are eating fewer fruits and vegetables, also shows those Americans who eat the most fruits and vegetables daily have the lowest BMI.
Meat Consumption and Cancer
Fruits and vegetables not only provide essential nutrients that promote health — they can also displace other, less healthy foods. Americans currently consume more red meat than any other group, even though excessive red meat consumption has been linked in multiple scienfitic studies to increased rates of cancer.
A recent long-range study of older Americans, conducted by the National Cancer Institute, found that over a decade, eating a quarter pound of red meat daily gave men a 22% higher risk of dying of cancer and a 27% higher risk of dying of heart disease compared to those who limited their red meat consumption to just 5 ounces per week.
Healthy Foods, Healthy Planet
U.S. residents’ addiction to meat and junk food affects far more than American lifespans and waistlines. Excessive consumption of meat and highly processed, prepackaged foods makes an impact on the environment, too.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock production generates almost a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions. Factory farms consume large amounts of clean water and grain (taking those resources away from people who need them) and produce large amounts of waste.
And prepackaged processed foods like corn chips or potato chips (which, contrary to the claims of certain junk food lovers, according to the CDC, do not actually nutritionally count as a vegetable) generally require much more energy to produce than fresh fruits or vegetables, and create packaging waste that often cannot be recycled.
Which is why America’s continuing, worsening addiction to unhealthy food is so concerning, not just to those who suffer the immediate health consequences, but also to anyone who cares about protecting the environment and slowing climate change.
Our cultural aversion to fruits and vegetables isn’t just hazardous to our health — it harms the planet.
The CDC has issued a set of tips for incorporating more fruits and vegetables into the average diet. (And Care2 recently shared a CNN video on how to cut grocery costs by buying healthier foods.) The real challenge for the CDC and other experts working to save not only American lives, but also the planet, may not be giving good dietary advice, but convincing Americans to follow it.
Detail of photo by Corpse Reviver from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license.