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The all-American junk food diet.


"America has the most abundant food supply in the world," boast officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This oft-quoted claim conjures up children munching "balanced" meals chosen from the Basic Four Food Groups, and adults following the government's favorite, non-controversial advice: "Eat a variety of foods."

But the reality falls far short of those glowing images. On any given day, children aged 1 to 5 are as likely to drink Kool-Aid or colas as orange juice. Children aged 6 to 11 are more likely to eat cookies than apples (or any other type of fruit). And 12- to 17-year-olds are as likely to eat potato chips as salad, which is the only non-potato vegetable that crosses most teenage lips. Adults don't fare much better.

These disappointing statistics come from the government's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or HANES. Though the survey was conducted between 1976 and 1980, it is the most recent data available for a nationally representative sample of Americans.

Gladys Block and Blossom Patterson, of the National Cancer Institute, recently used the HANES data to see how adults' diets stack up to recommendations for reducing the risk of cancer. NCI advises healthy people to eat less fat, more fiber, more fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins A and C, and more cruciferous vegetables. Yet, on any given day:

* 79 percent ate no fruits or vegetables high in vitamin A

* 72 percent ate no fruits or vegetables rich in vitamin C

* 84 percent ate no high-fiber bread or cereal

* 82 percent ate no cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, or cauliflower)

* 41 percent ate no fruits at all

* 49 percent ate no vegetables other than potatoes, beans, or salad.

"If we could get everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables, we could meet all of our goals," said Block. "It would bring our fiber, vitamins, and minerals up, and our fat down."

NCI's researchers concentrated on what we're missing, but what we're eating is equally disappointing. the graphs at right show that our children grow up on colas, chips, cookies, and ices (Popsicles and Slurpies). These foods are far more popular than bananas, melons, or carrots.

Ads tell us how little fat is in lean beef or pork, but our kids eat hot dogs, bologna, and hamburgers. Skinless chicken and fish barely show up on the charts.

It's unlikely that millions of Americans have completely overhauled their diets since these surveys were conducted. Most people get their "nutrition education" not from government pamphlets or teachers in the classroom. Their eating habits are shaped by what's available--in fast food restaurants, cafeterias, snack bars--and by advertising. If you think those influences have changed, consider these 1986 advertising budgets:

* Coca-Cola's: $152 million

* Mars candy: $140 million

* Nabisco Cookies: $38 million

* McDonald's: $592 million

Needless to say, the advertising budget for the International Apple Institute is no match for these giants. So even the most nutrition-conscious parents have an uphill battle. These tips might help:

* Eat 3 servings of fruit a day. (Fruit is better than juice because it has more fiber.) Quarter fresh oranges for breakfast. Offer your family apple and pear wedges for a snack. Serve a half grapefruit as an easy "first course." Keep that fruit bowl filled and fresh.

* Eat 3 servings of vegetables a day. Don't rely on salad alone. Serve steamed asparagus, broccoli, artichokes, or brussels sprouts with a squeeze of lemon. Eat them cold the next day as a snack. Garnish sandwiches with green pepper slices, not lettuce.

* Eat beans at least 3 times a week. Beans can crowd out the meat (and fat) on your dinner plate (see page 12).


Am. J. Publ. Health 78: 282, 1988.

Personal commuication, Connies Dresser, National Cancer Institute.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:May 1, 1988
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