The California Department of Health Services is on the warpath against cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases.
And the weapons in its fight are fruits and vegetables.
"We're on a campaign to double the amount of fruits and vegetables Californians eat," said Susan Foerster, a registered dietitian and chief of California's Nutrition and Cancer Prevention Program. "When we started the program, we believed Californians ate better than most other groups in the country. But data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that Westerners did not eat any differently.
"Then we conducted our own survey last fall and found 50% of people surveyed had not eaten a single fruit on the previous day. A third had no vegetables and 60% had no salad. A more recent survey conducted only a few days ago by telephone showed that 71% of the people surveyed had only eaten two or fewer servings of fruit and 80% had eaten two or fewer servings of vegetables," Foerster said.
Leading health authorities now agree that increasing fruits and vegetables in the diet will help lower risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.
"Studies show that 35% of all cancer deaths may be related to what we eat," according to Foerster. "A diet high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables contributes to the risks. By contrast, a diet low in fat and high in fiber (including plenty of fruits and vegetables) decreases the risk of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. That's why we are recommending five or more servings of these foods in the daily diet," she said.
Foerster expressed alarm at the overall consumer dietary trend, saying, "It appears . . . consumption of fruits and vegetables has not been what we thought they were. There has only been a 7% increase in consumption and purchasing of fruit and vegetables over the last 20 years. That's only .5% per year, which is phenomenally low," she said.
Another major concern is the negative dietary trend of educated women consumers. "In the past, education and nutritional status were closely correlated, especially in the diet of women," Foerster said. "Today we are seeing women who appear to be eating a lower fat diet not getting the nutrients associated with good nutrition. Consumption of calcium, iron and zinc is lower today than 10 years ago. These nutrients are vitally important to women's health.
"Women are dropping meat and milk and substituting alcohol, sweets and fats, mainly in the form of salad dressings. They are dousing salads with fatty dressings," Foerster said.
And the fast food industry is helping shape the way people eat based on convenience and economy, not health. "They are also responding to people's innate preference for fatty, salty and sweet foods. These are the foods that are promoted most heavily," she said.
"While processed foods and fast foods are heavily promoted through the media, fruits and vegetables are not. Public health agencies would like to see fruits and vegetables promoted with the same Madison Avenue approach to sales appeal as sweet, fatty and salty processed foods. Unfortunately, the produce industry is filled with small businesses who do not think in terms of advertising sales as do large companies with huge advertising budgets. The produce industry needs some help from health people in promoting their product because they really don't know how. From the public health perspective we are trying to change the way people eat. We cannot endorse status quo. We have to warn the consumer that things have to change for the betterment of the health of the nation," she said.
As a result, the California health program is stressing the convenience of fruits and vegetables. "We need to position fruits and vegetables as the convenience foods they really are. They require little preparation and only need to be washed before eating. You can pull them out of the refrigerator as is, or if they are frozen, thaw quickly in a microwave oven. They are available the year-round and are more economical than most other foods. We would be happy if people started with five servings a day, since the national consumption is only two servings a day. If we can move to five servings, we will be more than doubling the consumption," Foerster said.
The first step to add more fruits and vegetables to the diet is to become more aware of what is eaten, Foerster said, by making an effort to include fruits and vegetables in the daily diet, "since most of us are on the run and snacking most of the time."
"We found to our disappointment that 83% of consumers are snacking, but only 13% are snacking on fruits and vegetables, according to the New York Times survey," she said.
Vitamins in Food
Foerster recommends eating at least one Vitamin A-rich food each day, at least one Vitamin C-rich selection daily and at least one high fiber selection a day. Cabbage family (cruciferous) vegetables should be eaten several times a week.