If everyone ate enough veggies, we wouldn’t have enough to go around

If everyone on the globe ate as many vegetables as they should, we wouldn’t have enough of them to go around — but that’s not an excuse to skip your veggies!

Image credits: Michela / Flickr.

For the first time in history, there are more overweight than underweight people on the globe, and unhealthy diets have a lot to do with that. Unhealthy diets, in fact, are a leading cause of disease worldwide — and while eating healthy can be challenging and nutritional science isn’t always clear, one particular bit of advice always comes through: eat more fruits and vegetables.

The World Health Organization says each of us should eat 400 grams of fruits and vegetables per day, but we really don’t — even as not eating enough of these kills millions of people every year. But here’s the kicker: even if we really wanted to, we couldn’t — not all of us, at least.

Low fruit and vegetable consumption is an important and long-running challenge for our modern society, researchers say. It has many interrelated causes, such as insufficient supply, poor access, low affordability, and high levels of waste, and while there has been significant progress in availability, it’s still not enough.

The world produces more than enough calories to meet consumption, so that’s not the issue here. It’s also not about meat consumption since typically, livestock consumes more calories than it offers. Instead, too many people eat poor-quality diets, characterized by “cheap calories, highly processed foods, and overconsumption,” the study reads. All these favor obesity while not offering all the necessary nutrients.

“Current diets are detrimental to both human and planetary health and shifting towards more balanced, predominantly plant-based diets is seen as crucial to improving both,” write the authors of the new Lancet Planetary Health study.

Currently, just 55% of people around the globe live in places with adequate availability of fruits and vegetables, the study concludes — the remaining 3.3 billion people, not so much.

According to realistic projections presented in the study, that figure will drop to 1.5 billion by 2050. There will continue to be insufficient supply — unless food waste is reduced and productivity is substantially improved. For instance, countries such as India or Morocco will produce sufficient fruits and veggies by 2050, whereas several countries in the Americas, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa won’t.

“We show that even under more optimistic consumer waste scenarios, many countries will probably fail to supply sufficient fruits and vegetables to meet recommended consumption levels,” researchers write.

However, this isn’t a call to eat less fruits and veggies — quite the opposite. Not only are they healthier for you, but they also use up fewer resources than most alternatives. The challenge is to promote a food system that moves “its focus from quantity toward dietary quality and health,” the researchers say,

Less than a third of all Americans have a healthy weight — the vast majority are overweight or obese. Image via Wikipedia.

In order to reach this goal, several actions are needed. For starters, we need to increase investment in fruit and vegetable production. Simultaneously, as this happens, it would be best if societal consumption is shifted more towards fruits and vegetables so that the extra production isn’t wasted. Speaking of waste, food waste is also a massive problem — each and every one of us, along with all stakeholders involved (such as supermarkets and restaurants) need to curb our food waste. We currently waste around a third of all the food we produce, and that’s simply not acceptable if we want to feed the world a healthy diet. New practices need to be put in place to reduce food waste, and researchers also speculate that new technologies can help with that. Lastly, we need to educate people about the importance of healthy diets, and fruits/veggies in particular.

Simply put, we need to produce more vegetables, and we need to convince more people to eat them instead of processed alternatives.

It’s also important to consider the environmental aspects of it. Replacing more meat and processed foods with foods based on fruits and vegetables will make for a healthier society, as well as a healthier planet, reducing not only water consumption and land usage but also greenhouse gas emissions. It’s killing two birds with one stone: ensuring environmental sustainability and providing healthier diets.

Ultimately, researchers conclude:

“Achieving recommended consumption levels will require concentrated efforts across the food system to reorient investments and interventions to prioritise fruits and vegetables more. It will require additional investments in research and development to encourage more fruit and vegetable production, while decreasing its environmental footprint, as well as new processing, storage, and distribution technologies to reduce waste. Targeted fiscal policies such as price supports and procurement policies should also be considered to supplement public awareness efforts to incentivise consumer behaviour change.”

The study was published in The Lancet Planetary Health.


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