As the pandemic enters its third year with cases and hospitalizations as high as ever, fresh data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminds us that we already had a long track record of failing to manage our health.
The latest data from a decades-long health survey finds that—yet again—the vast majority of Americans have a poor diet and many of us are inactive. Specifically, just 10 percent of Americans eat enough vegetables, and only 12 percent eat enough fruit, according to recent responses to the CDC’s survey, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance system. Recent responses also reveal that 25 percent of Americans don’t do any exercise outside of any work activity.
A poor diet and inactivity can both set people up for medical conditions, such as weak immune function, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and certain cancers, the CDC notes.
“Following a dietary pattern that includes sufficient fruits and vegetables can help protect against some chronic conditions that are among the leading causes of mortality in the United States,” the CDC concluded in a recent study reporting the dietary findings. “Some of these conditions are also associated with more severe illness from COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, in a separate release of the inactivity data, Dr. Ruth Petersen, director of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, spoke to the importance of exercise. “Getting enough physical activity could prevent 1 in 10 premature deaths,” she said. “Too many people are missing out on the health benefits of physical activity such as improved sleep, reduced blood pressure and anxiety, lowered risk for heart disease, several cancers, and dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease).”
The latest dietary data came from nearly 300,000 US participants who responded to the survey in 2019, before the pandemic hit the US. The data asked people about their eating habits and estimated how they compared to recommendations laid out in the government’s 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Generally, the guidance recommends that adults eat 2 to 4 cups of vegetables and 1.5 to 2.5 cups of fruits per day.
Overall, respondents reported eating fruit a median of just once per day and eating vegetables a median of 1.6 times a day. The CDC researchers used previously established algorithms and food-recall reports to estimate if people reached the recommended amounts based on how often they ate fruits and vegetables each day.
Based on the estimates, only 10 percent of adults met veggie recommendations, with a range of 5.6 percent among residents in Kentucky and 16 percent in Vermont residents. Only 12.3 percent of people met fruit recommendations, ranging from 8.4 percent in West Virginia to 16.1 percent in Connecticut. The overall findings were similar to the survey results from 2017.
There were demographic differences in addition to geographic ones. Women were more likely than men to meet fruit and vegetable recommendations. People aged 51 and older were more likely than younger adults to get their vegetables. Hispanic adults were more likely to eat enough fruit compared with non-Hispanic White adults. Non-Hispanic Black adults in California, Massachusetts, and Nevada were less likely to get enough vegetables compared with non-Hispanic White adults. Overall, people in the highest-income categories were more likely to meet vegetable recommendations.
The survey has limitations, including that it relies on self-reported dietary data and algorithms to assess servings. But the CDC researchers speculate that the pandemic may only have worsened the already dismal fruit and veggie intake estimates. Supply chain problems and economic constraints can easily make produce more difficult to get. The stress of the pandemic can also easily throw off healthy diet plans.
The pandemic is likely to have disrupted people’s exercise, too, with gyms closing and disruptions to work and day care schedules. The recent survey results found that 25 percent of people weren’t doing any exercise outside work activities. As with the fruit and veggie intake data, there were also geographic and demographic differences. By region, the South was the most inactive. Seven states—Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia—had 30 percent or more adults report inactivity. Colorado was the most active state, with only about 18 percent of adults saying they were inactive.
Across all the states and territories, Hispanic adults had the highest prevalence of physical inactivity, with 32 percent saying they didn’t exercise outside of work, while non-Hispanic Asian adults had the lowest, with just 20 percent inactive.
According to the government’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking or raking leaves) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (such as jogging, shoveling snow, or taking a vigorous exercise class) per week.