Why Americans Aren't Eating Their Vegetables

Three new reports attempt to make sense of why Americans skip their veggies.
C'mon, America! What's not to like about these rainbow carrots? (Photo: Artist of Life/Getty Images)
May 17, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Why don’t Americans eat their vegetables? Too expensive? Not enough of them? Too girly? The answer is all three, if you believe three separate reports, all released this week, which seek to provide some insight into the realities—and myths—of healthy eating.

For sure, one factor that hampers a healthy diet is cost. It’s simply cheaper to fill the shopping cart with things other than fruits and vegetables, as 57 percent of women told ShopSmart Magazine in a much-publicized poll last week. Right? Not necessarily, according to new data from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Specifically, the USDA report suggests that while past studies comparing food energy (or the price per 100 grams divided by the number of calories present) have shown foods higher in saturated fat and sugar cost less than vegetables and fruits, when food groups are compared using the price per unit of weight (after it has been cooked and the seeds, bones, peels, skins and shells taken out) or portion size (price per serving), healthy options are cheaper.

But is this conclusion, brought about by scientists using a different measurement method, merely a shell game? Tufts University professor and food policy expert Parke Wilde comments on his blog that the USDA study doesn’t invalidate the per-calorie measurement of food, and that there are scenarios where each measurement technique are applicable. Still, as Wilde points out, the study has gotten some major media attention already, which may allow some consumers to get past their preconceptions about the cost of healthy food.

Not manly enough?

Some men may avoid color on their plates because they view meat as more “manly” than fruits and vegetables. A study, set for publication in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, found that men are more likely to associate meat with masculinity, a metaphor that may affect how many fruit and vegetables they eat.

“To the strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American male, red meat is a strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American food,” the authors write. “Soy is not. To eat it, they would have to give up a food they saw as strong and powerful like themselves for a food they saw as weak and wimpy.”

A Veggie Scarcity?

But even if you find healthy food gender-appropriate, many Americans may skip the veggies because there’s simply not enough to go around. That is, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which published an infographic contending the U.S. doesn’t produce enough fresh produce for every American to meet his or her recommended diet.

The USDA guidelines, dubbed “MyPlate,” recommend that half our daily food come from fruits and vegetables. Through the four-part graphic, the UCS shows how Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, that farmers could easily grow more, and that doing so would stimulate local economies. It concludes with a recommendation for additional public support for local food systems in the way of a $90 million federal commitment.

The dietary crisis America faces is frightening, for sure, but UCS’s Ashley Elles contends that “the infographic shows that it doesn’t have to be this way.” Justin Tatham of the UCS adds that while some progress has been made on funding healthful foods in this year’s Farm Bill (increased funding for the specialty crop program, farmers markets, organic certification, and the addition of a whole farm revenue in the crop insurance program), the bill is far from perfect.

“While this may seem like good progress,” he says, “one can’t understate enough how much the farm bill disproportionately favors commodity production over healthy food production.”

Are you getting enough vegetables in your diet? Are there any you just can't stand?