Doctors are prescribing food to kids and adults for better heart health — and it's working, new research suggests

  • Food prescription programs help people, including children, eat more healthfully.

  • Prescriptions for fruits and veggies help people manage weight, blood pressure, and more.

  • Using food as medicine may help reduce the risk of heart problems, especially for at-risk people.

In the near future, a visit to the local clinic to monitor your heart health may result in a prescription you can fill at a local farmers market instead of a pharmacy.

Doctors are experimenting with new programs to help people eat more produce, and providing resources to help, particularly for those who may not otherwise have access to fresh foods.

Providing at-risk adults and children with a prescription for fruits and veggies (and money to buy them) can help them eat more healthfully, according to the largest study of its kind to date.

It can also significantly reduce risk factors for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the US, said the researchers, from Tufts University and Medical Center as well as the Chan Medical School at the University of Massachusetts.

a family shopping for vegetables at the supermarket
Produce prescriptions helped people improve their health with foods they could buy at a local grocery store or farmers market.Andersen Ross/Getty Images

Food prescriptions helped people lower blood pressure and lose weight

The new research looked at data from nearly 4,000 people, including 1,817 children, from low-income neighborhoods in 12 different states, including California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Minnesota. Participants either had or were at risk of cardiovascular problems, and were provided with nutritional classes on healthy eating habits.

They were also given money specifically to buy fruits and veggies from grocery stores and farmers markets. The amount of money was about $63 per month on average, but varied by location, and in some cases was based on the number of people per household, ranging from $15 up to $300 (for a large family) per month.

Participants stayed on the programs for an average of six months. In that time, they reported eating more fruits and veggies: about a quarter cup more per day for children, and nearly one cup more per day for adults.

Food prescriptions also significantly improved measures of heart health like blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and body mass index, according to the study results, published August 29 in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

The benefits for heart health were about half the results of common medications, which is significant for a change to diet, lead author Kurt Hager of Chan Medical School told the Washington Post.

'Food as medicine' is a growing trend to cut healthcare costs and fight inequality

More research is needed to understand how fruits and vegetables might help, and how much you'd need to eat to see results.

Previous evidence from small pilot studies found food prescriptions helped people eat more fruit and veggies and improved their quality of life, but included limited data on specific metrics of heart health.

Participants not only saw improvements to specific health metrics, but also self-reported better health and quality of life and less food insecurity, according to the researchers.

It's not yet clear how much the fruit and vegetables themselves played a role, since other factors such as stress are major contributors to heart health issues.

"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 said in a press release.

The study had limitations, such as a lack of a control group to help confirm that food prescriptions were directly related to the positive results.

However, it's promising evidence to support more efforts to use nutrition as medicine, according to a doctor not involved in the study.

"Poor nutrition and nutrition insecurity are major drivers of chronic disease globally," Dr. Mitchell Elkind, chief clinical science officer of the American Heart Association and a professor at Columbia University, said in a press release. "This analysis of produce prescription programs illustrates the potential of subsidized produce prescriptions to increase consumption of nutritious fruits and vegetables, reduce food insecurity and, hopefully, improve subjective and objective health measures.

Read the original article on Insider