New research highlights the real economic and health costs to not eating enough vegetables and fruits

Mar. 13, 2017

By Debby Waldman (originally appeared in Apple Magazine – Spring 2017)
Photographed by Mirror Image Photography

You could call it a fruit and vegetable deficit. Canadians are not eating their recommended daily servings of everything from apples to zucchinis.

This nutritional shortfall has a price: more than $1 billion a year in hospital, medical and drug bills and another estimated $2 billion in lost productivity, says a groundbreaking Alberta study.

The Economic Burden of Inadequate Consumption of Vegetables and Fruit in Canada study by Alberta Innovates researcher Paul Veugelers, PhD, and his associates at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, looked at the economic impact of not consuming enough fruits and vegetables in Canada.

The study was published online this past fall and named the December paper of the month by The Nutrition Society, an international organization. The study also appeared in the journal Public Health Nutrition in February 2017.

Alberta Innovates-funded researcher Paul Veugelers
Alberta Innovates-funded researcher Paul Veugelers

The study could shape future public policy to help more Canadians eat healthier, which is Veugelers’ goal. “Every citizen and every leader of government needs to see healthy eating as a cost-saving instrument,” he says.

Veugelers compares his study to those that increased the public’s understanding of the dangers of smoking and physical inactivity.

“With smoking, the argument has been made again and again for people to smoke less because it is costing society a lot of money, in addition to physical damage,” he says.

Eating one more serving of fruits and vegetables a day could save Canadians $9.2 billion over 20 years

Without greater awareness and support of healthy eating, Veugelers says, “you are driving up the cost of chronic disease in Canada, and the costs are already mounting. How often do you hear that our health costs are too expensive?”

He answers his own question: “Close to daily, and everybody always says, ‘we have to prevent these diseases.’ Now you have an estimate of how much you are going to save if you get people to eat more vegetables and fruits.”

Canada’s Food Guide recommends people eat between four and 10 servings a day of fruits and vegetables, depending on their age and gender. Veugelers’ study shows that given our current deficit, if Canadians were to add one serving a day of fruits and vegetables, it could save about $9.2 billion over 20 years. The study also shows that reducing the number of people who eat less than the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables by a mere one per cent could save $10.8 billion over 20 years.

The solution seems startlingly obvious: eat your recommended daily servings of fruit and vegetables. But if it were that easy, we’d all be doing it.

Most people know that eating vegetables and fruits is a healthy choice. But many factors shape what we actually eat, such as how and where we get food, price, time and personal taste.

Kally Cheung is a public health nutrition provincial lead with Alberta Health Services who focuses on chronic disease prevention. One of her areas of interest is the workplace, since people can spend two-thirds of their waking hours at work and that is where many people make food decisions.

AHS provincial public health nutritional lead Kally Cheung
AHS provincial public health nutritional lead Kally Cheung

“Our food choices are affected by our surroundings: what is the culture at work, do colleagues eat at their desks or in a lunchroom, or do they grab something from the local convenience store or restaurant,” Cheung says. “A lot of forces affect what we choose to eat, or what we think we choose to eat.”

Since many factors affect what you eat, it’s important to understand how you can influence your eating habits at work. Cheung recommends bringing raw cut-up vegetables for a healthy snack at work, making fruits and vegetables half of your lunch and choosing menu items that contain vegetables when eating away from home.

To eat more fruit and vegetables we can change how we think and act by setting goals.

Cheung recommends people be realistic, and take a “SMART” approach: choose goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. For example, eat a green vegetable every day for the week.

“It’s about picking something that would be sustainable and small, and then monitoring those goals over time,” she says.

“Once you think you’ve achieved it, you can change to build on it. If that goal isn’t met, it gives you an opportunity to check in and, if it didn’t work, figure out why and make some adjustments.”

Time is among the primary factors affecting people’s food choices. If possible, Cheung suggests keeping a fruit bowl on the table at home.

“It’s visual, makes it easy to grab, and promotes eating fruit.” She also suggests keeping cut-up vegetables in the refrigerator, making it easier to pick a healthy option.

“Healthy eating is possible when people work together to make it easier and to encourage it,” Cheung says.

This includes workplaces, schools, communities and public policymakers.

Veugelers is working on more studies examining the cost and benefits of good nutrition. His research and that of others will become important tools for decision-makers in many areas: health, education, social services, economic development and labour. Ideally, Cheung says, this will lead to a greater understanding of the true costs and effects of disease on those sectors.

“The hope is it can bring them on board as part of the collective movement toward prevention,” she says. “We can’t afford not to.”

For ideas on eating healthy, balanced meals see page 50 of the Spring 2017 Apple Magazine.

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