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Researchers say people who increase their vegetable and fruit intake can improve their heart health. Dusan Atlagic/Getty Images
  • Produce prescriptions enable doctors to prescribe subsidized fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • A study of produce prescription programs found participants ate more fruits and vegetables and decreased their body mass index, blood sugar, and blood pressure.
  • Produce prescriptions also reduced food insecurity, which is associated with poor health outcomes.

A prescription written by a doctor for fruits and vegetables may be beneficial for people at risk of cardiovascular disease.

That’s according to research published today in journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

In their study, researchers reported that people who received a “produce prescription” for six months reduced their body mass index, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels and increased the amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet.

“We know that food insecurity impacts health through several important pathways, including overall dietary quality, but also through stress and anxiety, mental health and tradeoffs between paying for food and other basic needs such as housing costs, utilities and medications,” Kurt Hager, PhD, an author of the study and an instructor at UMass Chan Medical School in Massachusetts, said in a press statement.

“These results indicate produce prescriptions may lay an important foundation for improved health and well-being,” he added.

The researchers examined data from 22 produce prescription programs across 12 states between 2014 to 2020. The data included 3,881 participants of which 2,064 were adults and 1,817 were children. The participants were at risk for or had poor cardiometabolic health.

The participants were from clinics that served low-income neighborhoods.

As part of the produce prescription program, participants were given an average of $63 a month to buy fruits and vegetables.

The researchers reported that the adults in the program were 60% more likely to increase their health status by one level (for example, from fair to good) by the end of the program. Children were twice as likely to report better health status.

Adults in the program increased their intake of vegetables and fruits by almost one cup per day.

Participants with high blood pressure experienced reductions and those with diabetes had reductions in blood sugar.

Adults with obesity saw significant improvements to their body mass index, the researchers reported.

At the conclusion of the program, participants were one third less likely to report experiencing food insecurity.

Dr. Eugene DePasquale, the medical director of the Heart Failure, Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support Program with Keck Medicine of USC in California, says a produce prescription could be a helpful tool to improve health outcomes.

“Our choices in diet have an impact on our overall health with suboptimal diets associated with a high burden of deaths from cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” he told Medical News Today. “There may be a variety of reasons for this such as food insecurity. In this large multisite study, the use of produce prescriptions not only increased intake of fruits and vegetables. This also improved health status of adults and children with improved blood pressure, body mass index and diabetes markers. The “produce prescription” may be a useful tool to further improve health outcomes and reduce disparities.”

“The improvement in health outcomes is to be commended and demonstrates that these efforts are multidisciplinary. The impact of diet on health outcomes is not novel, but achieving this may be considerably harder. The produce prescriptions may help with this and also emphasize the importance of diet in addition to medications,” DePasquale added.

Food insecurity is the lack of access to or affordability of foods that promote health and wellbeing.

In 2020, an estimated 13.8 million households in the United States were food insecure at some point during the year.

In the new study, more than half of the households who participated reported experiencing food insecurity.

Research suggests food insecurity is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Shannon Hoos-Thompson, an interventional cardiologist at The University of Kansas Health System, says health disparities are an ongoing challenge in cardiovascular disease.

“Health disparities are a well-known issue in heart disease, despite that knowledge we have not been able to make them better for several years. This study is one that continues to add data that the medical field has to change the approach to handling the problem,” she told Medical News Today.

The American Heart Association advises eating a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains.

A well-balanced diet should included healthy forms of proteins such as nuts or fish or lean meats. Limiting intake of added sugar, processed foods, and salt is also important.

Poor diet is the leading cause of illness in the United states and is associated with more than half a million deaths annually. On average, that’s more than 40,000 deaths each month associated with poor diet.

Dr. Yu-Ming Ni is a cardiologist and lipidologist at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California. He says a key benefit of a produce prescription is breaking down barriers to purchasing and cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables.

“When you’re not used to working with fruits and vegetables, there’s a bit of an intimidating factor when it comes to cooking with fruits and vegetables,” he told Medical News Today. “Then on top of that, you also have cost factor. If you’re trying to figure out what to buy to feed your family on a limited budget it can be hard to commit to picking up vegetables that needs to be prepared versus picking up already prepared foods.”

“Having a produce prescription makes it possible for you to incorporate healthy fruits and vegetables into your diet without having to worry about the potential downsides of the cost of the food,” Ni added. “Then now you have the ability to learn how to use these fruits and vegetables and maybe become more adept at working with fruits and vegetables in your home.”