We all know that fruit and vegetables are good for us, but are they so good that medical programs should prescribe them? A new study by Australian researchers suggests they should.
A review carried out by the George Institute for Global Health, NSW, and Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, US, examined 13 programs that either subsidised or directly provided healthy foods as a form of medical treatment. They found that overall, participants in the programs ate more healthy foods and improved in a few different health indicators.
“Collectively, we saw a positive impact on the health of patients in these programs, even though there were quite different ways in which they provided the healthier foods and measured the outcomes,” says Jason Wu, program head of nutrition science at the George Institute.
“We found the effect of healthy food prescriptions on blood glucose was comparable to what you would expect to see from some commonly prescribed glucose-lowering medications – this adds weight to the growing evidence that food can also be medicine.”
The researchers say that healthy food prescriptions could be beneficial for people who have limited access to these foods in particular.
Roughly half of the study participants were experiencing food insecurity, while three-quarters had existing medical conditions.
“People experiencing food insecurity are less able to manage chronic diseases owing to mental and financial strains, such as high costs of medications and other out-of-pocket health-related expenses,” says Saiuj Bhat, a clinician involved in the study.
“Boosting the intakes of healthier foods like fruit and vegetables has even greater potential to improve the health of more vulnerable people.”
Fruit and vegetables have been the focus of these health food prescriptions for now, but the researchers suggest that more work should be done investigating the effect of other healthy foods like nuts, beans, whole grains, and fish.
The researchers are now running a study with 50 food-insecure patients in Sydney, in which each patient is being prescribed a box of these foods each week.
The review is published in Advances in Nutrition.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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