Expert lay groundwork for higher produce consumption to take root

May 11, 2015

LOS ANGELES ó Whether you clear your cabinets out for every new diet that promises health and beauty, just grab the bacon-topped cheeseburger or live somewhere in the middle, you must ó you just must ó know by now that we should all eat more vegetables and fruit. So what will make you actually do it?

Itís nowhere near time for a victory dance, but experts see a little movement in the right direction, citing the growth of farmers markets, more vegetarian restaurant options and campaigns to encourage produce consumption.

"There are some signs here and there that the diet is improving," said Kelly Brownell, an obesity expert and the dean of Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. But "the change is too slow to make a big public health difference."

The plodding pace of change is to be expected, said Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary and an animal welfare advocate. Shifting the food industry and our habits is like turning a mammoth aircraft carrier, he said.

Itís pretty easy to get through the day without eating anywhere near the amount of produce the federal government recommends ó and most Americans are in the deficient category. Cold cereal and milk for breakfast, ham and cheese sandwich with tortilla chips for lunch and, for dinner, a piece of chicken, potatoes and a salad, maybe a piece of fruit for a snack.

Thatís maybe three servings of produce, and experts say five is barely enough. The federal government has recommended that half your dinner plate be produce.

Dr. David Katz, the founding director of Yaleís Prevention Research Center, is optimistic about the future, despite his assessment of the present: "We have accomplished almost nothing with fruit and vegetable intake."

As for growth in farmers markets, there are more than 200 in Southern California alone, and thereís also rise in restaurant and supermarket choices. Nielsen consumer research shows fruit and vegetable sales increased by volume and in dollars for each of the last four years.

"Everywhere you go there are vegetarian options. Five or 10 years ago, that was not the case," said Jack Bishop, editorial director for Americaís Test Kitchen, which produces a public television cooking show that has an affiliated magazine and recently issued a vegetarian cookbook. "Vegetarian cooking seems a lot more appealing if you are not buying vegetables from 3,000 miles away," he added.

While statistics showing that nearly 10% of Americans are vegetarians havenít changed much, the Meatless Mondays program has grown; itís been adopted in hundreds of schools, including the L.A. school district, and dozens of hospitals.

The Partnership for a Healthier America, which worked with First Lady Michelle Obamaís Letís Move initiative, has organized a campaign centered on produce called FNV (for fruits-n-vegetables) and has signed up spokespeople including actress Kristen Bell and the NFLís Cam Newton to participate in TV and social media efforts. The campaign started recently in Fresno, Calif., and Hampton Roads, Va., with plans to expand, said Lawrence Soler, chief executive of the partnership.

And then thereís Omaha Steaks. The century-old company recently began selling cartons of fresh produce from the Chefís Garden. For years now, you could buy twice-baked potatoes or creamed spinach with your meat, but this is a whole new game. "Veggies have always had a place next to the steaks we sell," Todd Simon, senior vice president, said by telephone. But now, he said, "weíre blazing a bit of a new trail" by putting produce and beef on the same level.

Studies such as one published recently in an American Medical Assn. journal saying that a vegetarian diet may help lower blood pressure also argue for diets heavy with plants. Nearly a third of American adults have high blood pressure.

Researchers from Yale surveyed the scientific literature and reported last year in the journal Annual Reviews that a diet thatís predominantly plants is "decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention." Other research, published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., found no measurable difference between a vegetarian diet and a Mediterranean one, which includes meat and fish, though in lower amounts than the conventional American diet.

Experts who may have differing perspectives ó from vegan to Paleo ó can rally around a diet thatís mostly unprocessed whole foods, mostly from plants, Katz said. But thereís so much confusion from the hundreds of diet books, research reports and sources of information. It doesnít have to be that way, he said, if the experts talked more about what they all agree on: "We all eat a lot more like one another than we eat like the average American diet," he said.

To help reduce confusion and "the unending fractious discord" about just what people should eat for the most healthful outcome, Katz has rallied more than 150 experts from 16 countries, including many top names in their fields (Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health; Dr. Deepak Chopra; former White House chef Sam Kass, Dr. Mark Hyman, "Detox Diet" author; and Dr. Andrew Weil, integrative medicine advocate, among them) to sign onto a project called GLiMMER (Global Lifestyle Medicine Mobilizing to Effect Reform) that plans to educate people on that consensus on diet, smoking and exercise. If the advice is followed, Katz said, up to 80% of chronic disease could be eliminated.

"Iíd like to put an end to the era of the fad diet in America," Katz said. And the food industry will respond to consumer demand, just has it did when it created low-carb pasta or Snackwells cookies or diet soda, he said.




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