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Still Chewing the Fat

Despite warnings, fewer than one in four Americans eat enough fruits, vegetables

FRIDAY, Jan. 4, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you chow down five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, consider yourself a paragon of culinary discipline -- and hardly the typical American.

Despite the steady drumbeat supporting healthy diets, a new report shows that fewer than one in four Americans eat what they should.

"It's hard to change people's attitudes and habits," says Barbara Howard, chairwoman of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association (AHA), which released the report this week. "We don't expect everyone to reach 100 percent, but we still have a long way to go."

There is a small bit of good news for the female half of the population: Although popular culture suggests women are obsessed with their weight, they actually eat better than men.

However, on the whole, in a country that embraces cheeseburgers and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, people simply aren't getting enough broccoli and cauliflower, the AHA found when it examined federal statistics from the 1990s.

In 1996, only 22.7 percent of adults ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. The rate rose since 1990, but only from 19 percent.

Those most likely to have healthy diets were white people, those over 65, college graduates, non-smokers and regular exercisers.

Not surprisingly, fat people were behind their peers in the healthy-eating department. Only 15.4 percent of them ate the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, a rate even lower than in 1990.

The good news for women is that 26.2 percent of them ate enough fruits and vegetables, compared to 19.1 percent of men.

Howard sees an obvious reason for that.

"Women are the food preparers," she says. "They're more into reading about nutrition. They go into the supermarket and read labels. It's more on their radar screen."

She cautions that the study's statistics are based on people's recollections of what they ate, not direct observation by researchers, so they may be less than accurate.

"As you can imagine, they're not perfect," she says. "If I ask you what you ate yesterday, you might not remember. And some people lie about what they eat."

Howard blames some of America's lousy diet on the rise of "meat and potatoes" during the last half of the 20th century.

"People haven't grown up learning how to appreciate vegetables like they used to when they lived on farms," she explains. "We have a society that relies on fast food, and tends to stress the meat and potatoes, the starches. Vegetables have taken a second-class role. A lot of people haven't learned how good they can be."

Or how good for your health: Heart disease remains the leading killer of women and men in the United States.

What To Do

Try the American Institute of Cancer Research for recipes that will help you eat well without sacrificing flavor.

To learn more about how to incorporate healthy foods into your diet, visit the University of Maine's Fruit Pyramid Series.

SOURCES: Interview with Barbara Howard, Ph.D., chairwoman, nutrition committee, American Heart Association, Dallas, and president, MedStar Research Institute, Washington, D.C.; American Heart Association's 2002 Heart and Stroke Statistical Update
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