I was lucky enough to attend the newly assembled Vegetable Summit that was held in City Hall, London earlier this month. It consisted of numerous panels from various backgrounds- farmers, supermarkets, councils and restaurants- all outlining the steps that they have taken (and will take) to increase the amount of vegetables the English population consume. Other panellist included academics, general practionaers (GP’S) and nutritionist; they presented shocking statistics on the population’s health, or the lack off, and outlined the important reasons why we desperately need to raise vegetable consumption. Adults with non- communicable diseases were the primary focus in discussions, as a healthy vegetable abundant diet is vital in the prevention and treatment of such diseases. The panelists also focused of vegetables in children’s diets, as fostering healthy eating habits from an early age may protect their generation from the global obesity epidemic that is unfolding in adults.

Here are some facts that I found interesting and eye-opening:

  • 20,000 lives could be saved a year, if we all ate one more portion of vegatables
  • Only 1.2% of all marketing is for vegetables
  • 5% of children aged 11- 16 eat less than 3.5 portions of vegetables a day
  • 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese
  • Over the last 10 years the amount of vegetables we buy has fallen, and the Goverments 5 A Day Campaign has made no lasting difference in vegetable consumption.
  • The UK has the second highest rate of obesity in Europe.
  • The cost of being overweight or obese is £6.1 billion every year for the NHS
  • Diet is the biggest risk factor to death and disability in the UK
  • By 2050 half the UK adult population will be obese
  • 9p of every £1 we spend in the NHS is spent on diabetes, and 90% of diabetes is strongly associates with diet and obesity.
  • Research indicates the poorer you are, the less fruit and vegetable you tend to consume in England. However, this correlation does not apply to all countries e.g. Portugal’s rich and poor consume the same amount of the nutritious food groups.

So as you can probably deduce, the issue is not only a health problem but an economical and societal one.  The NHS is crippling under the weight of patients with non-communicable diseases, and we are raising children that are following in their parents unhealthy footsteps. The problem is not that people do know what it constitutes to be healthy, because there are copious surveys proving that they do. The problem is that they do not have the resources (people with very small incomes say they only have enough money to buy the staples i.e. bread, milk, pasta and can’t afford luxuries such as fruit and veg) or the time (a good example is nurses who work night shifts and end up buying snacks from the hospitals vending machines). Both of these issues, were discussed in the vegetable summit, every panel concluded that our food landscape can change only if the government, the private sector businesses and health professionals work together.

The government panel pledged that they will aim to encourage more local shops to sell fresh produce; this is particularly important as the UK’s shopping habits have changed from doing a big shop at a supermarket, to popping down to the local shop throughout the week for supplies. They also are keen to increase the amount of people with low incomes applying for food vouchers; £250,000 worth of food vouchers were left unused in the London borough of Redbridge last year. Other goals are to ban birthday cake at schools, unlimited sugary drinks at restaurants, introduce vegetable prescriptions at general practitioners and work with schools to teach children about healthy eating.

Private sector businesses all focused on increasing the amount of vegetables that they serve with every dish. The paradigm of eating out has changed. More and more people are eating out at least once per day, and the concept of eating out being a treat is dying. Therefore, if we are eating more of our meals prepared outside of our kitchens we are relying on private sector business to provide us with a significant amount of our daily nutritional needs. Currently, our food landscape is making it hard for us to eat healthy; we have around 8,000 plus chicken shops in London, most being near a school.  The monopoly of junk food shops- and the regression of eating at the dinner table with the whole family- can influence people to pick up highly calorific and nutritionally poor meals. It will take a long time till we have more fast food shops serving healthy food than junk food, but if the private sector is willing to strive towards a healthier country then I believe a healthier nation is possible.

Health professionals and academics are also a key to encouraging our society to eat more greens. TV doctors and GP’s have a great platform to educate the public of the benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables; they are respected figures who encounter a spectrum of people. Dr Chatterjee agreed at the summit that we cannot medicate our way out of very illness, but we may be able to prescribe our way towards a healthier society. People take a prescription seriously; they see it as the remedy to their problems, and ultimately it is the reason why they go to their GP. An American Welcome Wave, a non-profit organisation, understood this and came up with an idea to prescribe vegetables (just like you would pharmaceutical drugs). The veg prescriptions are aimed at people on a very low-income; they can take the prescription to a supermarket and exchange it for fruit and veg. The results are great, and an organisation called The Alexandra Rose Charity are trailing the same idea out in Brixton, London. This is a great step towards acknowledging the true power that food has on our health.

Lastly, teachers play one of the biggest roles in shaping a child’s future. We have a nation that knows that healthy eating is yet they are not transforming the knowledge into action. One of the main reasons they leave veg off their plate is because most adults say they don’t like vegetables. However, the majority don’t like them because they were probably not exposed to veg from an early age, and thus have not made positive associations with them. Jason O’Rourke, headmaster of Washingborough Academy, said that once kids are introduced to the texture, the smell, the sound and the feel of a vegetable, they are inclined to taste it too. Schools can, and some are, striking up a friendship between vegetables and kids.

To conclude, most people cannot agree what is the perfect diet, but all agree that thee more vegetables we consume the healthier we are. The Summit made me seriously reflect on my diet and remind me the importance of vegetables. Summits such as this are what we need to slowly, but surely, do something practical and safe to beat the rising burden of disease.