We are what we eat: We can all get behind the UN’s International Year of Fruits and Vegetables

Public Health Association of Australia

By now, the majority of us have returned to work and well and truly put the annual excesses of the Christmas-New Year-Summer holiday season behind us. New year’s resolutions to exercise more, drink less, and eat healthier may be waning as we face the pressures of daily life once more.

Putting the COVID-19 pandemic aside for a moment, there’s still some hope for a much healthier year ahead following the United Nation’s declaration that 2021 is the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables.

The year aims to raise awareness of the nutritional and health benefits of consuming more fruit and vegetables as part of a diversified, balanced and healthy diet and lifestyle, as well as to direct policy attention to reducing loss and waste of these highly perishable produce items.

When we think of healthy eating, the first food items that often come to mind are fruits and vegetables – colourful, vitamin-, mineral-, and fibre-rich, they’re vital for the proper functioning of the human body.

Yet most of us don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. The World Health Organization recommends consuming at least 400g each day to reap their many health and nutrition benefits.

Helping people to consume sufficient amounts of fruit and vegetables is also a matter of protecting lives. In 2017, some 3.9 million deaths worldwide were attributable to not eating enough fruit and vegetables. Insufficient intake is estimated to cause around 14 per cent of deaths from gastro-intestinal cancer worldwide, with about 11 per cent of those due to ischemic heart disease, and about 9 per cent of those caused by stroke. Of course, in many countries (developing and developed), access to affordable and fresh fruits and vegetables is a significant challenge.

As an affluent, well-resourced and highly-educated country, you’d be forgiven for thinking the UN’s global pitch for more fruit and veggie consumption isn’t directed towards Australia. However, the campaign is actually highly relevant to us, as well as low-middle income countries (though their circumstances and challenges for increasing healthy food consumption are often vastly different).

As a nation with an abundance of high-quality, locally-grown fruit and vegetables, many Australians do currently have the opportunity to consume more of them. However, due to long-lasing inequities experienced by many groups (e.g., Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, rural and remote residents, low socioeconomic groups, disabled people, people with mental health issues and older people) there are fewer opportunities for them to get the recommended dose of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diet.

There are many complex barriers to accessibility and affordability of healthy foods. High prices of fresh produce can sometimes be a barrier for some, but studies have also shown that healthier foods are not always more expensive. Other barriers can include a lack of supply to high quality produce (particularly in remote areas), physical access for disabled and older people, low health literacy (including nutrition knowledge) and a lack of food preparation skills.

The lack of active promotion of fruits and vegetables in comparison to the common promotion of less healthy foods is also a big issue. Australians are exposed to significant levels of marketing, advertising, sponsorship and promotional messages that encourage unhealthy food choices. Children and vulnerable groups are often most exposed to this relentless promotion. Unhealthy foods are also generally given more prominence in supermarkets and other retail settings than fresh produce, as well as being more available than fruits and vegetables in many settings such as restaurants, workplaces, schools, sports events and even in hospitals.

Considering all of these factors that help to make unhealthy food choices so common in Australia, it comes as little surprise that a 2017 CSIRO survey of 145,000 adults found that four out of five Australians weren’t getting enough fruits and vegetables in their daily diets.

That survey revealed only 24 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men were eating the recommended two fruits and five vegetables a day.

When comparing the survey results by occupation, construction workers and those in the science and programming sector recorded the poorest fruit and vegetable eating habits. On the other hand, retirees and health industry workers were more likely to meet the recommended dietary guidelines.

The overwhelming message is that most Australians are not as healthy as we think in relation to our food choices, and we need to eat higher quantities and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables every day to meet the optimum levels. This is of course much easier for Australians who are not part of a vulnerable group or experiencing disadvantage, and much policy effort therefore needs to be directed towards supporting those people to achieve healthier diets and greater food security. There also needs to be significant policy change to reduce the promotion of unhealthy foods in Australia and increase exposure to healthy food options in everyday environments.

As we emerge from a year dominated by the significant health and lifestyle challenges thrown at us by COVID-19, through the UN’s excellent initiative of declaring 2021 the International Year of Fruit and Vegetables many of us can play a part in getting ourselves healthier, and in so doing, improve the health of the nation.

Increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables we eat is one of the simplest ways we can improve our overall health and wellbeing, as well as combat the growing rates of obesity and lifestyle diseases which are so prevalent in wealthy countries such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and many forms of cancer.

If we really are what we eat, as a nation we can, and must, do a whole lot better, starting in this year of fruit and veg.

More information about PHAA’s food and nutrition policies can be found here.

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