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Could Fruits & Vegetables Be The Golden Ticket To Active, Healthy Aging?

October 4-10 is Active Aging Week, and we at the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) are celebrating, not just because of our deep respect for the enduring experience and wisdom of the aged, but also the profound appreciation for the high stakes involved in healthy, active aging. Seeing the COVID-19 virus take its toll on the elderly and those with chronic diseases (for which risk of development increases with age) has been a wake-up call to many and an important reminder that maintaining good health across the lifespan is paramount and must be top-of-mind as we age. Spoiler alert – eating plenty of fruits and veggies is key to happy and healthy golden years!

With Each Passing Year, We Live Longer

The good news is that longevity continues to increase in our country. U.S. Census data show that the life expectancy of Americans has consistently trended up since 1960 and is projected to further increase by approximately six years between 2017 and 2060 – from 79.7 years to 85.6 years.[1]

Keeping in mind that the goal is to simultaneously live longer, healthier and happier lives – healthy eating patterns will be vital. To that end, experts agree that perhaps the most important aspect of building healthy eating patterns is getting enough fruits and vegetables, and the guidance has remained the same over time. Still, the vast majority of Americans (80% and 90% for fruits and vegetables, respectively) are not consuming recommended amounts.[2] In fact, according to the most recent PBH State Of The Plate Report, fruit and vegetable eating occasions decreased by 1% and 4%, respectively, between 2015-2020 alone.[3]

Fortunately, when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables, with age comes wisdom. During adulthood, consumption frequency increases with age, and the oldest of our generations have long been avid fruit and vegetable consumers.

Fast Facts – Older Adults’ Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables

Fruit

  • Americans 71 years and older are the second most frequent fruit eaters with 311 eating occasions per year – or about six times per week. Since 2015, eating occasions containing fruit increased by about one every other month in this age group.
  • The only group that consumes fruit more often are children 1-3 years old – about once more per month than those 71+ years.
  • Adults 51-70 years of age eat fruit approximately 226 times annually – just over four times per week. This age group is the fourth most frequent consumer of fruit and their level of intake remained fairly flat between 2015 and 2020.

Vegetables

  • Americans 71 years and older are the most frequent vegetable eaters with 483 eating occasions per year – more than nine times per week. Eating occasions are slightly on the rise among those in this age group, adding nine more occasions annually, between 2015 and 2020.
  • Adults 51-70 years of age are the second most frequent vegetable eaters. However, this group logged 48 fewer eating occasions between 2015 and 2020 – a loss of about one eating occasion per week.

With that, although older populations have historically been among the most frequent fruit and vegetable consumers, we did see this number decline. So how do we stop this negative trajectory before it goes too far?

The Know-Feel-Do Behavior Change Framework

There are three components of PBH’s behavior change framework – 1) what individuals know, 2) what they feel, and 3) what they do. As we often say, behavioral scientists consider feeling and doing as being the most effective levers to changing behavior. So, where are consumers on the know-feel-do behavioral continuum for fruits and vegetables?

People know that fruits and vegetables are healthy for them. Ninety-five percent of individuals aged 50 years and older agree that fruits and vegetables have many health benefits.4 In fact, those eating the most fruits and vegetables say they are seeking health-promoting nutrients, such as fiber and antioxidants. Further, those who have chronic health conditions (e.g., high cholesterol or hypertension) are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables at a higher frequency than those without these conditions.3

Just as the prevalence of high cholesterol and hypertension, the desire to eat more fruits and vegetables increases with age. It’s no wonder that about two-thirds of consumers report that they are trying to eat more fruits (63% in those 65 years and older) and vegetables (64% in those 65 years and older).3 Fortunately, 89% of individuals aged 50 years and older say they enjoy eating fruit and vegetables – good news from a feel perspective.4

But What Do People DO?

Here’s what we know, based on the 2020 PBH State of the Plate Report. Fruit and vegetable eating occasions decreased by 9% between 2004 and 2020. Why? Fruit intake is down largely because of a decline in eating occasions that include juice. In fact, between 2015 and 2020, frequency of drinking juice decreased in all age groups. Vegetable eating occasions declined between 2015-2020 in five of eight age groups (by 6% to 50%). Vegetable consumption is down largely because of a change in how we eat our meals, with less vegetable side dishes – particularly at dinner. Case in point: In 1985, side dishes accounted for 42% of eating occasions, and this number decreased to 36% in 2000. Side dishes still accounted for just 36% of eating occasions as of 2020.

Individuals 65+ years are more likely than other age groups eat vegetables eight or more times per week, while those aged 55-64 years present more of a dichotomy where they are either: 1) more likely than other age groups to eat vegetables 12 times or more per week or 2) not eat them at all.

Because eating behaviors and ultimately, habits are built over time, we can choose to eat fruits and vegetables more or less frequently, the former making it more likely that we will consume these nutrient powerhouses in greater amounts.[4] Bonus – repeated behaviors are more likely to turn into habits.[5]

Fruit and Vegetable Eating Trends – A Lens Into The Future

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – we are in a perilous time when it comes to healthy eating, and the biggest threat is the crisis created by the underconsumption of fruits and vegetables. Underconsumption and decreasing consumption frequency, particularly in younger age groups, demonstrate that fruit and vegetable consumption habits are not being passed down from our oldest to youngest generations. Consider this: Those 45-54 years of age, the next in line to be family elders, have had decreased frequency in eating both fruits and vegetables since 2015.

Perhaps this is the reason that the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans so strongly emphasized the importance of starting early and building healthy eating patterns, complete with plenty of fruits and vegetables, from preconception to gestation to infancy and beyond. We must do more as a nation – from industry, including retail and foodservice, medical and public health communities as well as governmental agencies and policy makers, digital influencers and even friends and neighbors who care about the health and wellbeing of our children and our aging population – to help support individuals of all ages and families in building new fruit and vegetable habits!

Looking to make half your plate fruits and vegetables? Please Have A Plant®. And, Start Simple with MyPlate.

[1] Medina, Lauren D., Shannon Sabo, and Jonathan Vespa, “Living Longer: Historical and Projected Life Expectancy in the United States, 1960 to 2060,” P25-1145, Current Population Reports, P25-1145, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2020.
[2] U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.
[3] Produce for Better Health Foundation. State Of The Plate: America’s Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Trends. 2020. Available at fruitsandveggies.org.
[4] Produce for Better Health Foundation. Novel Approaches to Measuring and Promoting Fruit and Vegetable Consumption, 2017. Available at: https://fruitsandveggies.org/.
[5] Do Jason/Christina have a citation to support this?

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