Doctor holding fresh fruit and vegetable tray

(© ARTFULLY-79 - stock.adobe.com)

DALLAS — Want to improve your health while cutting down on that collection of pill bottles in the medicine cabinet? A new type of prescription called “food medicine” could be the answer. New research suggests that “prescribing” fruits and vegetables can have a significant positive impact on cardiovascular health.

Led by Kurt Hager, Ph.D., M.S., an instructor at UMass Chan Medical School, the study focused on “produce prescription programs,” which enable healthcare providers to prescribe fruits and vegetables alongside traditional medications. Patients receive electronic cards or vouchers to purchase free or discounted produce at grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

“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,” Hager explains in a statement to the American Heart Association. Hager completed the work as a doctoral student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Largest-Ever Study Of Its Kind

This analysis is hailed as the largest of its kind, combining data from nine such programs across the United States. The study involved 1,817 children and 2,064 adults, all at risk for heart disease or Type 2 diabetes. Participants were primarily from low-income communities and were either food-insecure or enrolled in clinics serving predominantly low-income neighborhoods.

Study participants received a median of $63 per month for produce and attended nutrition classes. They were routinely tested for blood pressure, BMI, and blood sugar levels before and after the program, which lasted between four to 10 months.

Results showed that adults increased their fruit and vegetable intake by nearly one cup per day, while children increased theirs by about a quarter of a cup per day. Additionally, adult participants with high blood pressure experienced a significant reduction, and blood sugar levels decreased among those with diabetes. Importantly, food insecurity reduced by a third among participants.

Meanwhile, participants at higher risk for heart disease who participated in produce prescription programs for an average of six months increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables and had reduced blood pressure, body mass index and blood sugar levels.

Older couple shopping for healthy food, fruits and vegetables
“Food medicine” prescriptions consisting of free fruit and vegetables could improve heart health in at-risk individuals. (© NDABCREATIVITY – stock.adobe.com)

“Poor nutrition and nutrition insecurity are major drivers of chronic disease globally, including cardiometabolic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and their cardiovascular consequences,” comments Dr. Mitchell Elkind, chief clinical science officer of the American Heart Association. “This analysis illustrates the potential of subsidized produce prescriptions to improve health.”

Elkind also mentioned the Food is Medicine Initiative, a program announced in September 2022 by the American Heart Association and The Rockefeller Foundation. It’s aimed at promoting medical prescriptions for healthy food to prevent and manage chronic diseases.

‘Food medicine’ could be key to better public health

According to American Heart Association statistics, poor nutrition contributed to nearly 8 million deaths in 2019. “Food insecurity is the lack of equitable and stable availability, access, affordability to foods and beverages that promote well-being and prevent and treat disease,” the Association stated in a 2022 policy statement.

While the study brings hope, it also had several limitations, including the absence of a control group and the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the programs. Further research is required to corroborate these findings, including randomized controlled trials.

Nevertheless, this groundbreaking research marks a significant step towards understanding the role of nutrition in overall health, and offers promise for future public health initiatives.

“There is much we still need to learn about which programs are likely to be effective, how long they should operate, what happens to patient health outcomes when they end and more,” says Hager, “The future of Food is Medicine will likely see pilots and expansion occurring alongside ongoing evaluations that will continually improve the quality of services provided.”

The research is published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

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