The Vegetables Most Americans Eat Are Drowning In Salt And Fat

This isn't exactly what a healthy serving of veggies looks like.Lauri Patterson iStockphoto
This isn’t exactly what a healthy serving of veggies looks like.
Lauri Patterson iStockphoto

By Maanvi Singh, NPR

Popeye and our parents have been valiantly trying to persuade us to eat our veggies for decades now.

But Americans just don’t eat as many fruits and vegetables as we should. And when we do, they’re mainly potatoes and tomatoes — in the not-so-nutritious forms of French fries and pizza, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Americans eat 1.5 cups of vegetables daily, on average, the USDA finds. But the national nutrition guidelines recommend 2 to 3 cups a day for adults. And more than half our veggie intake comes from potatoes and tomatoes, whereas only 10 percent comes from dark green and orange veggies like spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes.

Of course, potatoes are great on their own — they’re a good source of potassium. But most Americans eat them with a hefty side of fat and sodium. According to the USDA’s handy chart, at home, most people get their potato fix in the form of chips. And when eating out, about 60 percent of the potatoes we consume are fried. Baked potatoes are also popular, but most people don’t eat the skin — a great source of fiber that fills you up.

Tomatoes start out healthy as well, and they’re a good way to boost your vitamin A and C intake. Tomato sauce, on the other hand, can pack in a lot of hidden sugar and salt. While a cup of raw tomato has about 9 milligrams of sodium, canned tomato sauce can contain more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium per cup, according to the USDA.

And even potatoes and tomatoes in their healthy forms don’t make for a complete, balanced diet. Americans eat far less fiber than they should, the researchers say, and fiber is found in dark green and orange veggies. As we’ve reported, fiber can make you gassy, but it’s essential to a healthy microbiome.

After a 2002 government nutrition report found that higher fruit consumption correlated with a lower body mass index but not vegetable consumption, USDA researchers decided to look more into how Americans are getting their vegetables.

“We started thinking about it, and realized it’s quite common to just pick up a piece of fruit and eat it as-is,” says Joanne Guthrie, a nutritionist at the USDA’s Economic Research Service who co-authored the report. “But that wasn’t the case for vegetables.” Vegetables often need to be peeled, cut and cooked, so they’re just not as handy.

So maybe this tomato and potato finding isn’t a huge shocker. Just a few years ago public health experts were debating whether school lunch programs should get to count a slice of pizza as a serving of vegetables, and fries have garnered their share of negative publicity in recent school lunch battles, too.

But, as Guthrie tells The Salt, the report is a reminder that we need to pay more attention to how we prepare our vegetables. “We all want to have a healthful diet,” she says. So mind the sugar and sodium, and branch out from pizza and French fries.

How a cup of nettle tea changed my life

A member of the Muckleshoot tribe, Valerie Segrest knew something was missing from her diet, but she wasn’t expecting the change it would bring.

By Valerie Segrest,

Four years ago, when I was studying nutrition at Bastyr University in Seattle, I came to class to find a cup of tea waiting for me. My instructor said we would be doing a meditation: We would sit in silence for three minutes and drink tea. She instructed us to pay attention to how this warm beverage made us feel.

I was already immersed in an environment that preached the benefits of a good diet. My diet was pristine. On certain days, I was obsessed with eating the right things, like leafy greens and organic, whole carrots, which I cut myself rather than risk buying the baby-cut varieties that are washed in chlorinated water. But I was still sick quite often and couldn’t put my finger on what was lacking.

I am a Muckleshoot Indian, but other than the occasional seafood dish, little of what I ate then bore much connection with the landscape I lived in, which had fed my ancestors for many generations.

My body immediately responded to this tea. It was as if I were remembering what it was like to feel well. I was rooted and energized. When our three-minute silence ended, the instructor circled around the room and asked us to describe how we felt. Some people said they felt calmed, some said comforted.

Still stunned, I continued to sit in silence. The teacher announced we had just experienced wild stinging nettle tea.

I proceeded to drink nettle tea instead of water every day. I walked around with jars of nettle-tea infusions and talked to anyone who asked about how amazing this plant was. I began to visit patches of nettles in the woods near my house and everywhere else I could find the plants.

I read everything I could on the nettle. I drew it. I sat with it. I stung myself with it. I harvested and ate it. I bathed in its beautiful, rich juice. I had never felt so strong, energized, and healthy.

I call nettle my first plant teacher. From the moment I drank the juices of this plant, I became an advocate, passionate about the native foods of the Pacific Northwest. Currently, my work as a nutrition educator takes me to tribal communities throughout Washington state. Everywhere I go, I hear stories about the ways native foods heal people. Elders remind me that problems like diabetes and heart disease were almost nonexistent in our communities until we began to lose access to foods like salmon, huckleberries, elk and wild greens. These foods are nutrient-dense, and they bless us with a true sense of place.

From Muckleshoot oral traditions, I have learned that plants and animals teach us how to live. How can we be like salmon, who return each year to their ancestral rivers and give their lives in order to feed the land, plants, animals and humans? How can we transform our behaviors and habits to fit our natural surroundings, like the 20 different varieties of huckleberries that grow wild from the seashore to the mountaintops?

Since that moment with the cup of nettle tea, I have become committed to sharing the abundance of wild foods, praying for their return and celebrating their presence in the world.

Forage Fish Important to Salmon Diet

Point No Point Treaty Council biologists are counting forage fish eggs so they can get a better idea of what food is available for salmon.
Point No Point Treaty Council biologists are counting forage fish eggs so they can get a better idea of what food is available for salmon.

Source: NWIFC

Shannon Miller and John Hagan keep a close eye on the phases of the moon so they can determine the best time of the month to collect samples of pinhead-sized translucent forage fish eggs.

“We found that the moon phases may be a potential spawning cue,” Miller said. “There are more eggs around the new moon and full moon phases during the fall and winter months, so we schedule our surveys around that and the tides. That makes for an interesting work schedule.”

Miller and Hagan are Point No Point Treaty Council (PNPTC) biologists who are studying the spawning rates of surf smelt and pacific sand lance, both important food sources for salmon. The PNPTC is a natural resources management agency for the Port Gamble and Jamestown S’Klallam tribes.

Past studies have focused on the presence or absence of eggs in the intertidal zone but have not necessarily tracked egg densities,” Miller said. “We’re trying to build a better quantitative data set to see if they’re reproducing enough offspring for salmon to eat. They’re an important part of the food chain and an indicator of the health of the sound’s ecosystem.”

Since 2011, they have been collecting bags of sand from beaches on Indian Island, in areas with prime forage fish habitat, which includes sandy gravel shores. The bags are taken back to the PNPTC lab, where the eggs are separated from the sand and then individually counted. In the 2011-2012 sampling period, more than 450,000 eggs were sampled.

“We’re finding many more eggs than in past studies, but we are also sampling more intensively,” Miller said.

This five-year project will also look at the timing of incubation and emergence of forage fish embryos, as well as the environmental conditions for spawning, such as water temperature, that determine successful spawning rates.

Partners in the project include the U.S. Navy, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Puget Sound Partnership and the Environmental Protection Agency.