By Katherine Schreiber, published on January 1, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Chances are, someone has told you to eat your vegetables. If it wasn't Grandma, then it was probably the government. From newsstands to iPhone apps, federal dietary guidelines are more accessible than ever. Nevertheless, chances are even greater that you haven't heeded the advice.
A mere 26.3 percent of American adults consumed three or more vegetable servings a day in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—about the same as in 2000, despite a rising tide of information about healthy eating. Some 32.5 percent of us got in two or more daily fruit servings—a decline from 2000, when 34.4 percent of us consumed a couple of pieces of fruit a day. But both numbers fall far short of targets set by our nutritional keepers, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.
"These reports are disappointing," declares CDC physician Jennifer Foltz, noting that a diet rich in fruits and veggies can help reduce the risk for many leading causes of death. "We wanted to double fruit and vegetable consumption in 2000. A decade later, we're seeing a 2 percent decrease in fruit intake and no change in vegetable consumption."
Is a cup of spinach really that hard to stomach? Apparently it is—although Foltz hopes that the newly revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans might help it go down. They emphasize consumption of plants over grains, more nutrition education for schoolchildren, and fresher foods in school and workplace cafeterias.
Americans got their first taste of dietary guidelines in 1980, when officials laid out the nutritional elements shown to reduce the growing toll of chronic diseases. They boiled down to favoring fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—while shunning refined sugars, saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium. The recommendations have since been revised every five years to incorporate the latest research.
Although the 2005 guidelines set off changes to food labels detailing nutritional content and spawned interactive food pyramids, they did little to stir up fruit and veggie enthusiasm. In fact, in a stunning example of the law of unintended consequences, which takes unique twists in the food realm, they might have inadvertently driven us away from the good stuff.
Our eating behaviors are particularly sensitive to "the ironic effect of external controls," contends University of Chicago psychologist Stacey Finkelstein. In one set of studies, she recruited college students to rate their hunger levels after taste-testing several protein bars. The nutri-tional content of the bars was identical; some, however, were described as "healthy" while others were said to be "tasty." Overwhelmingly, the "healthier" samples proved the least satisfying and left subjects wanting to consume more; their "tastier" counterparts satisfied more.
Finkelstein then explored how perceptions of our own control influence how hungry we think we are. Half of the 53 subjects were invited to try the protein bars before rating their hunger, and half were told that doing so was their job. Those who felt they had been denied a choice proved hungrier after their nosh.
Impose healthy eating and such are the consequences, Finkelstein insists. "Not only do many of us fail to associate healthier foods with satiation, most of us find nothing as fulfilling as free will. We experience a rebound in hunger and consumption when others make our food healthier for us," she explains.
Blame biology. "We're designed to be easily overwhelmed by high-fat and high-sugar foods," says Leah Olson, a biology professor at Sarah Lawrence College. "They provide the quickest route to fueling our brains and our bodies."
Of course, whatever fuel we don't end up using we store as fat. To our forever-foraging ancestors living at the edge of famine, this was an advantage. Modern Americans are still just as drawn to energy-rich foods although we're far less physically active. Enter obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other maladies.
Ironically, the cure for our dietary woes might be a little less information. "More nutritional labeling doesn't get at the heart of the problem," observes Gavan Fitzsimons, professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University. "Instead of providing more information, we need to address the underlying motivational issues." Our surroundings play an enormous role in governing our behavior; sights, smells, and sounds commonly coerce us into unhealthy behaviors.
Simply surrounding ourselves with healthy foods could go a long way to getting them into our mouths. "When you're distracted, hungry, or fatigued, you act on what's physically salient," says behavioral neuroeconomist Baba Shiv of Stanford University. "You're focused on what's in front of you." Unfortunately, calorie-dense processed products are most likely to be within arms reach; they're marketed far more aggressively than produce.
Brian Wansink, Cornell University food behavior scientist and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, hopes to change this. He's come up with new designs for school lunchrooms that outsmart our nutritional quirks. He'd place healthier options strategically to increase their chances of being chosen.
"Basic behavioral principles can be applied to making lunchrooms smarter," Wansink says. Like moving the salad bar so that kids bump into it en route to the cash register. Placing chocolate milk behind the white milk. Labeling healthy foods "delicious" or "awesome." Giving kids a choice between celery and carrots, rather than just providing carrots, ups their carrot quotient by 30 percent.
"People taste what they think they're going to taste," he explains. "Telling a kid, 'Hey, eat this, it's healthy' is a really dumb way to approach the problem. The better and smarter way is to say something like, 'Hey, try this, it's really creamy."
Scratch a consumer and you'll expose lots of contradictions in their food consumption patterns. It's part of the human condition, says Finnish researcher Hanna Leipäemaa-Leskinen. She asked 257 people ages 18 to 64 to cite their top impediments to leading a healthier lifestyle.
28 percent didn't have enough time
20 percent found healthy items too costly
20 percent preferred to indulge
13 percent didn't want to violate the (unhealthy) eating habits of friends and family
12 percent were confused about which foods are healthy
4 percent preferred to stick to habitual eating patterns
3 percent didn't respond, and odds are they weren't off in the kitchen cooking cabbage