Updated May 21, 2019. Increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is so vital to human health that doctors are now writing prescriptions for produce.
Diet and Disease
More than ever, new evidence about the link between diet and disease is emerging.
According to one study published by the World Cancer Research Fund, cutting out all meat, dairy, alcohol, and sugary drinks can reduce cancer risk by as much as 40 percent. Red meat has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal, lung, pancreatic, and nasopharynx cancers, whilst processed meats like bacon are associated with stomach, pancreatic, and esophageal cancers.
Other research has suggested that a plant-based diet could help reverse type-2 diabetes. High profile figures have shared stories about their own transformations; Brooklyn Borough President and vegan Eric Adams says that his type-2 diabetes was causing him to lose his eyesight and feeling in his legs. Rather than turn to medication, Adams overhauled his diet as a long-term solution, cutting out all animal products.
As a result, Adams lost 30 pounds and his symptoms disappeared. He was also able to stop taking the emergency insulin that doctors had given him.
Eating more plants isn’t just linked to a decreased risk of physical ailments. A study in China showed the beneficial effects of a high-fiber plant-based diet on mental health. Study participants who consumed 21 grams of fiber from plant sources such as cereals and vegetables were less likely to experience symptoms of depression when compared to those who consumed less fiber.
A plant-powered diet could also be instrumental in preventing depression from developing in the first place. Research by the Rush University Medical Center showed that participants eating a diet rich in vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains, and without many processed foods or animal products, were 11 percent less likely to develop depression than participants in other diet groups.
Plants and Medicine
Active ingredients found in plants have long been used as the main component in medical remedies. Now, the use of plant extracts as remedies is commonly known as herbal medicine and is often disregarded as ineffective, or pseudoscience. However, some of the most common commercial drugs available today have their bases in plants.
For example, the strong painkiller opium uses a compound derived from the poppy flower. Aspirin, which is used as a painkiller as well as a prescription for those who have suffered a heart attack, derives from the active ingredient in willow tree bark. The ancient Assyrians and Egyptians also used salicin, a precursor to salicylic acid, to temporarily numb pain.
Nowadays, active compounds for drugs are usually chemically manufactured by laboratories, and plant extracts are considered food supplements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, various herbal supplements are still considered effective by many for a variety of problems.
Echinacea is often used to strengthen the immune system and help fight off cold and flu symptoms, as is Goldenseal, a plant native to southeastern regions of Canada and eastern regions of America. Several plant extracts are also used to alleviate the symptoms of menstruation, including Evening Primrose, Feverfew, and Black Cohosh.
Plants that are commonly consumed in a standard diet have also shown promising effects. Garlic is said to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also has natural anti-fungal and antibacterial properties.
Pineapple is a known digestive aid and an anti-inflammatory, thanks to the enzyme bromelain. Though more significant research is needed, there is evidence to suggest that bromelain may play a part in reducing inflammation associated with osteoarthritis.
Advantages of Plants as Prescriptions
A recent publication tied together the health benefits of a diet high in fruit and vegetables and the implications for national health services around the world. The authors devised the study, published in PLOS Medicine in March, as a response to the increase in healthcare spending predicated by diet-related conditions.
The authors noted that healthy eating incentives haven’t been implemented at a significant enough scale. This makes properly evaluating the benefits, costs, and cost-effectiveness difficult, resulting in fewer governments being willing to implement them further.
The study found that a healthy food prescription could not only improve users’ health but also the overall cost-effectiveness of their healthcare in the long run. The prescriptions simulated, which would be covered by health insurance, included two scenarios.
In the first scenario, health insurance covers 30 percent of the cost of fruit and vegetables (named the F&V incentive). In the second, health insurance covers 30 percent of a wider range of products including whole grains, nuts and seeds, and plant-based oil (named the healthy eating incentive).
Both incentives showed potential benefits for health-related disease and cost-effectiveness. The F&V incentive could prevent 1.93 million incidences of cardiovascular disease (a broad term used to describe health conditions as well as events like heart attacks and strokes). It also represented an average saving of $39.7 billion in formal healthcare costs.
The healthy eating incentive proved more effective, preventing 3.28 million incidences of cardiovascular disease and a potential saving of more than $100 billion. Covering the cost of nuts, seeds, and whole grains has the added benefit of preventing 120,000 incidences of diabetes.
“We found that encouraging people to eat healthy foods […] could be as or more cost effective as other common interventions, such as preventative drug treatments for hypertension or high cholesterol,” said co-author Yujin Lee of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.
She continued, “Healthy food prescriptions are increasingly being considered in private health insurance programs, and the new 2018 Farm Bill includes a $25 million Produce Prescription Program to further evaluate this approach.”
More and more governments are beginning to recommend plants for disease prevention. The U.S. government invested in a scheme that helps families in Houston afford fresh produce. The program, called Wholesome Wave, was being offered by Memorial Hermann Hospital and has since been implemented at other locations. The Houston outreach program allowed more than 300 families in the area to redeem their “prescriptions” at local farmers markets and Target stores.
Houston wasn’t the first city to use a program like this. Wholesome Wave has seen success in other major metro areas like Los Angeles and Miami.
The programs have, so far, been successful. The coupons — valued at around $1 per day per family member — are typically aimed at children battling obesity and type-2 diabetes, which are now at epidemic levels in the U.S. Many of the recipients are battling high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and pre-diabetic conditions as well. And while $1 may not seem like much, it’s often more than enough to buy a few servings of fresh fruit and vegetables. The program is said to work faster and be more safe than drug intervention and also help children develop healthier eating habits.
Families who wish to qualify for the program must attend three classes on nutrition. They learn to read food labels and how to prepare dishes using fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Our families have been very, very receptive of the program and the children are eating the fruits and vegetables,” Lisa Kimmey-Walker, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Memorial Hermann Health Centers for Schools in the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, told Click2Houston.
“When they come in for their follow-up, I ask them ‘about how many fruits and vegetables do you eat now?’ Many of them were at zero when we started and now they’re eating five, which is the national target. Which very few children are able to achieve,” she said.
Click2 reports on one 11-year-old boy, Joseph, who lost five pounds in one week. “He just discovered he loves broccoli and tangerines,” the site reports.
“Praise God he lost five pounds. He lost five pounds in a week,” his mother, Evelyn Esparza, said. “I’m proud and I’m very happy. I’m just full of joy because they help me through this program.”
A new Farm Bill passed at the end of 2018 saw $250 million pledged to develop healthy eating incentives, with $25 million dedicated to helping schemes like Wholesome Wave in the next five years. The previous Farm Bill only allotted $135 million, showing that the U.S. government is growingly recognizing the benefits of healthy eating for its population.
Food Is Medicine
The state of California is leading the way with such schemes, with $6 million pledged to an ongoing study conducted by the California Food Is Medicine Coalition (CalFIMC). Part of the wider national Food Is Medicine Coalition, a group of companies that are working together to address malnutrition across the U.S, CalFIMC provides medically tailored meals to those with complex chronic conditions.
Participants can also use medication to control their conditions, however, the program follows a holistic approach. The customized meals combine with nutrition classes and regular wellness checks to ensure participant engagement in the scheme doesn’t drop.
The results speak for themselves. Research from the study, which is due to end next year, has shown a 63 percent decrease in hospitalizations caused by chronic conditions when meals are provided for a six-month period.
Various other studies are being launched elsewhere in the U.S. as a result. One in New York is tracking the beneficial effects of such meals for malnourished cancer patients. Another in Massachusetts sees community organization Community Servings and investigative research body Evidence For Action measure the meal delivery service’s effectiveness.