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“Prescribing” fruits and vegetables to adults and children is associated with increased consumption of these foods and multiple health benefits, according to a new study.

The analysis, published in the American Heart Association’s peer-reviewed journal Circulation, looked at people at increased risk for cardiovascular disease who participated in produce prescription programs for an average of six months, and found they increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables. This shift was associated with improved body mass index, blood sugar and blood pressure levels, researchers found, as well as a decrease in food insecurity.

“Poor nutrition and nutrition insecurity are major drivers of chronic disease globally, including cardiometabolic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and their cardiovascular consequences, including heart failure, heart attack and stroke,” Dr. Mitchell Elkind, chief clinical science officer of the American Heart Association and a tenured professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University, said in a news 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.”

In produce prescription programs, patients receive electronic cards or vouchers to access free or discounted produce at grocery stores or farmers’ markets, the authors explain.

The analysis, which is thought to be the largest study of the impact of produce prescriptions, encompassed more than 3,800 participants across nine programs around the country. Almost half (1,817) were children with the average age of 9, while 2,064 were adults with an average age of 54. More than half of households in the study reported experiencing food insecurity. 

Participants received a median of $63 per month to buy produce and completed questionnaires about fruit and vegetable consumption, food insecurity and health status. Routine testing was also performed to check health status, but there was no control group to compare results, a limitation of the study.

Still, the results suggest produce prescriptions could be an important tool for improved health. For example, adults reported their fruits and vegetables intake increased by nearly one cup per day, and children’s intake increased by about a quarter cup per day. The odds of being food insecure also dropped by one-third.

“Future research will need to include randomized controlled trials to offset any potential bias and prove more rigorously the benefits of produce prescription programs,” Elkind added. “The American Heart Association’s new Food Is Medicine Initiative will be focused on supporting such trials.”