Produce Prescription Boosted Health

The idea of “food as medicine” isn’t new. It’s been around since at least the ancient Greeks! But it hasn’t been studied much. As anyone who reads our blog knows, we like to look at the science behind commonly held beliefs. Sometimes, they are solid advice, and sometimes it turns out to be nonsense. New research did the same thing.

A large study found evidence that a diet full of fruits and vegetables can improve heart health. That sounds like common sense, but there’s a difference between knowing about heart-healthy foods and actually testing them. Researchers wrote “produce prescriptions” for free fruits and veggies for almost 4,000 people in 12 states who struggle with affording a healthy diet. The vouchers could be exchanged at stores and farmers markets. The people in the study all had diet-related health problems like hypertension, obesity and blood sugar concerns.  

We were excited to see improvements,” said study author Kurt Hager, an instructor at UMass Chan Medical School. “Among adults with hypertension, we saw that systolic blood pressure decreased by eight mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure decreased by about five mm Hg, which could have a meaningful impact on health outcomes… The reductions we saw in blood sugar were roughly half of that of commonly prescribed medications, which is really encouraging for just a simple change in diet.”

Anything that lowers [fasting blood sugar] and improves blood pressure control is beneficial,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts Univ. “Improvements in blood glucose can significantly reduce the risk of conditions like eye disease, kidney disease and nerve disease.”

This modeling study provides evidence that produce prescription programs may increase consumption of nutritious fruits and vegetables and reduce food insecurity,” said Dr. Mitchell Elkind, chief clinical science officer of the American Heart Association and a tenured professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia Univ. “These prescriptions also seem to improve subjective and objective health measures.”

Unfortunately, when the study ended, people who had been prescribed the free produce could no longer afford the healthier diet and reported seeing their health decline. Doctors related to the study pointed out that, if they were normal prescriptions for long-term health concerns, people wouldn’t just stop taking their medications after six months. They said more research is needed to establish who would benefit from prescribed produce and get it covered by insurance.

Over 300,000 Americans die each year from cardiometabolic illnesses… that are directly linked to what they eat,” said Dr. Hager.

Some people may feel that this would be a “handout.” However, it’s essential to note that an older study found that medically tailored meals could decrease hospitalizations by 1.6 million and result in a savings of $13.6 billion annually. Medically tailored meals are ones that are already fully prepared and delivered to people’s homes. Simply prescribing free produce is much cheaper and could still result in massive savings for public health.

The study didn’t have a control group. It doesn’t address how to roll out a plan for the produce prescriptions nationally or who might be eligible. And it doesn’t teach people how to make healthier food choices. People were self-reporting their new diets. But, their medical results show that whatever they were eating, they were improving with the prescriptions. So, while more research is needed, this supports the saying that food is medicine, and the study should be a step toward insurance and medical providers assisting with access to fresh produce.  

Banner image: Randy Fath via Unsplash

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