NEWS

Just 2% of Teens Eat Recommended Amount of Veggies, CDC Says

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Key Takeaways

  • Rates of fruit and veggie intake among high school students are staggeringly low, according to a new report from the CDC.
  • The number of teens who eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables has fallen over the last decade.
  • Getting teens to boost their fruit and veggie intake requires a multi-pronged approach at both the federal level and in private homes, experts say.

When you think of a typical meal for an American teen, you probably don’t imagine a plate piled with produce. But just how few fruits and vegetables teens are eating is even lower than you might expect, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The report, which looked at survey data from more than 13,000 high school students across dozens of states, found that just over 7% get the recommended amount of fruit. Vegetable consumption rates were even lower, with just 2% of high schoolers meeting the recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Worse yet, the latest numbers reveal a downward trend in healthy eating habits in high schoolers. Here’s what the CDC says about fruit and veggie intake among teens.

Fruit and Veggie Intake Among Teens

The USDA recommends that girls between the ages of 14 and 18 years old consume at least 1.5 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables every day. For boys in that age group, those recommendations increase to 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of veggies per day.

However, very few teens meet those guidelines, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released by the CDC on Jan. 22. The study used data from a 2017 survey on 13,354 public and private high school students in 33 states, which was conducted as part of the broader Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.

Researchers found that just 7.1% of high school students ate the recommended amount of fruit and 2% met veggie intake recommendations. Those numbers were a drop from the results of the 2013 survey, which showed that 8.5% of high school students consumed enough fruit and 2.1% met the guidelines for veggie intake.

“This is of concern because nutrition-related behaviors in adolescence may be predictive of adult behavior and in turn indicative of the risk for developing non-communicable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” says Maya Feller, the registered dietitian nutritionist behind Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition and author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook: Over 100 Recipes for a Healthy Life.

The study also showed that the percentage of high school students who met the federal fruit and veggie intake recommendations tended to be higher among boys compared with girls, as well as non-Hispanic Black people and Hispanic people than non-Hispanic White people.

When broken down by state, Kansas had the lowest rate of high school students who met veggie intake recommendations, at just 0.6%. New Mexico, on the other hand, had the highest proportion of teens who met recommendations for veggie intake at 3.7%. For fruit consumption, Louisiana ranked the highest with 9.3% of high school students eating the recommended amount, compared with a low of 4% in Connecticut.

With that being said, it’s important to note that 17 states were not included in this study, so the actual state rankings of teen fruit and veggie intake may be different. Furthermore, this report relied upon self-reported data for its results. The CDC said that some participants may have overestimated their fruit and veggie intake, and the consumption rates may be even lower than the data suggest.

Despite the limitations, the study shows that the majority of teens in the U.S. aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables.

Julia Nordgren, MD

The study does a great job of quantifying what I see in my practice day in and day out. Kids aren’t even close to eating the fruits and vegetables they would need to promote good health.

— Julia Nordgren, MD

“The study does a great job of quantifying what I see in my practice day in and day out. Kids aren’t even close to eating the fruits and vegetables they would need to promote good health,” says Julia Nordgren, MD, a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and author of The New Family Table: Cooking More, Eating Together, and Staying (Relatively) Sane. “It is great to see this in raw numbers—it certainly paints a very grim picture about the nutritional intake of our teenagers.”

Why Teens Don’t Eat Enough Fruits and Veggies

Nutrition experts say there are a myriad of reasons why fruit and veggie intake is low among American high school students. One factor may be the autonomy people start developing during their teenage years, in which they become increasingly responsible for feeding themselves while managing a busy schedule. They may be more inclined to grab something quick and easy, rather than something healthy.

“Teens are independent and are balancing school, work, and social activities,” says Lee Cotton, a registered dietitian nutritionist who focuses on a “non-diet approach” to healthy eating. “Eating away from the home places the decision on food on the teenager. Teens are more likely to grab a convenience food or food from a vending machine.”

Lee Cotton, RDN

Eating away from the home places the decision on food on the teenager. Teens are more likely to grab a convenience food or food from a vending machine.

— Lee Cotton, RDN

The widespread marketing of less nutritious processed food products may also influence choices high school students make at meals and snack times.

“Vegetables don’t have multimillion-dollar media campaigns making them exciting and appealing,” says Dr. Nordgren. “From the time these teens were toddlers, they have seen thousands of messages about how fun and exciting snacks can be. Breakfast can be magically delicious, snacks can be flamin’ hot, and dinner can be beef tacos with cheese layered with beef and more cheese and deep fried—how fun!”

She adds that this advertising can drive children toward less nutritious foods, which can, in turn, shape their palate and preferences away from fruits and veggies later in life.

“Not long after kids get exposed to these kinds of foods, their taste buds and brains get habituated to these hyper-sweet, hyper-salty, hyper-fatty eating experiences,” explains Dr. Nordgren. “This makes eating vegetables ordinary, or even boring. And when [those] foods are engineered to light up their brains, it is hard for nutritious foods to compete.”

Motivating Teens to Make Healthy Eating Choices

Boosting fruit and veggie intake among teenagers can make a big difference in their health—both now and later in life.

“Numerous studies have highlighted the benefits of adequate fruit and vegetable consumption, including a reduced risk of developing several chronic lifestyle-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers,” says Reshma Shah, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and co-author of Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families. “Additionally, fruits and vegetables contain fiber, which is essential for the health of our gut and microbiome.”

But getting more high school students to eat the recommended amount of produce will likely require a multi-pronged approach for families at home and the country at large.

Dr. Shah recommends that parents prioritize fruits and vegetables for children starting from a very young age in order to establish long-term healthy eating habits.

“Parents can do this by modeling the behavior (enjoying fruits and vegetable themselves!), having fruits and veggies washed, prepped, and ready to go, and finding fun and creative ways to help young children explore and enjoy them, such as in fun shapes or in dips like hummus or peanut butter,” says Dr. Shah.

Food Equality

Increasing government subsidies for produce, as well as making healthy foods more accessible, can also make a difference in fruit and veggie intake among teens, says Feller.

Maya Feller, RDN

Redistributing funds to support national school lunch programs, nutrition education in schools, and increasing farm-to-school programming could have a positive impact on getting teens to eat more fruits and vegetables.

— Maya Feller, RDN

“Additionally, addressing systemic inequities that have led to the redlining of full-service grocery stores in lower-income neighborhoods would help make affordable nutritious foods more readily available,” she explains. “Redistributing funds to support national school lunch programs, nutrition education in schools, and increasing farm-to-school programming could have a positive impact on getting teens to eat more fruits and vegetables.”

Another thing that can help is teaching teens about how foods can impact the concerns they have right now, rather than emphasizing how a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables could harm their health later on.

“Teens tend to be focused on the short term rather than thinking about their health in 20 years,” says Feller. “Talking about fruit and vegetable consumption in the context of their now may make them more appealing. For example, how do they impact hair and skin, specifically acne? Will they help with recovery after sports? Will eating them improve athletic performance?”

Finally, making sure fruits and vegetables are available in a convenient way to eat, wherever teens are, can make it easier for them to choose something healthy when they’re hungry.

“The simplest thing parents, schools, and communities can do to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in our youth is to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Dr. Shah.

What This Means For You

Fruit and veggie intake rates among high school students across the country are at dismal levels. That could play a role in their health and well-being right now as well as their risk of disease later in life.

Getting teens to eat more fruits and vegetables requires a multi-pronged approach. Nutrition experts say we need national policies to subsidize fruits and veggies and make them more accessible, especially to people in low-income communities. They also recommend that families try to expose children to more produce starting at a young age to build healthy habits and explain to teens how eating fruits and vegetables can benefit their lives right now.

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2 Sources
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  1. Lange SJ, Moore LV, Harris DM, et al. Percentage of adolescents meeting federal fruit and vegetable intake recommendations — Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, United States, 2017. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70(3):69–74. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7003a1

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Published December 2020.