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Food may be an effective medicine – study

Capsule spilling out fruit and vegetables

Prescribing patients fruit and vegetables may be an effective way to help people manage diet-related conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to a new research review.

The systematic review of studies investigating the effects of healthy food prescription programmes found participants ate more fruit and vegetables than before the prescription, lost weight and had improved blood sugar levels.

Benefits for poor people with health conditions

Co-researcher Jason Wu says that healthy food prescriptions could be beneficial, especially for people with limited access to such foods and those with certain medical conditions.

“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,” Dr Wu says.

The programmes studied varied from subsidised healthy food to directly providing fruit and vegetables as a form of medical treatment.

The effects on blood glucose were similar to those seen from some commonly prescribed blood glucose-lowering medications, he says.

About half of the people recruited to the programmes were experiencing food insecurity and three-quarters had specific medical conditions including overweight or obesity, high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes.

Lack of healthy food access increases disease risk

Saiuj Bhat, a clinician researcher involved in the review, says a lack of access to nutritionally adequate food leads to poor diet and a higher risk of cardiometabolic diseases.

“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,” Dr Bhat says.

“Boosting the intakes of healthier foods like fruit and vegetables has even greater potential to improve the health of more vulnerable people.”

Study limitations

The review is limited by variations in the methodologies of the studies it included and better designed controlled clinical trials are needed to test the veracity of the findings, but it shows this is a topic worth exploring further to see if healthy food prescriptions should be more widely used.

Research into the effects of prescribing other healthy foods, such as nuts, whole grains, legumes and fish is also needed.

Food as medicine

The concept of food as medicine has been around for thousands of years but science is still exploring the evidence.

What we do know is some eating patterns, specifically mostly plant-based with a focus on minimally processed foods, are associated with longevity and lowered risk of chronic disease.

There is also good evidence we can support our immune systems by eating a gut-friendly, fibre-rich diet, including a wide variety of plant foods, probiotic fermented foods, healthy fats and oily fish, and minimising our alcohol, sugar and salt intake.

First published: May 2021

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