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Doctor's orders: Eat more produce

Combat diet-related disease

Your parents always told you to eat your vegetables. But, what if you went to the doctor for a regular checkup — and instead of getting a prescription for medication, you walked out with a prescription for fruits and vegetables? Instead of treating chronic conditions like heart disease or type 2 diabetes with just medication, some doctors are turning to produce prescription programs to help reverse symptoms or prevent disease altogether.

These programs help change the way people eat by partially or fully covering the cost of fruits and vegetables. The goal? Reduce health care spending on diet-related diseases and fight food insecurity by increasing access to healthy foods.

Here’s how — and why — the programs work.

Using food as medicine

About half of all deaths External Site from heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes in the United States are linked to a poor diet — which now beats out smoking as the leading cause of death around the globe. And, the link between bad diets and our health External Site is costly. The U.S. spends approximately $500 billion a year on diet-related diseases. More than half of that spending is used to treat diabetes. People with diagnosed diabetes spend an average of nearly $10,000 per year on medical costs External Site attributed to the disease.

However, research shows that changing dietary habits to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats could have a significant impact. A recent study External Site showed that fresh fruit and vegetable prescriptions — which help reduce consumption of fast and processed foods — could save more than $100 billion in health care costs and prevent 350,000 deaths each year.

Produce prescription programs can work in a variety of ways. Some provide vouchers redeemable at a local grocery store for a certain dollar amount of produce or send patients home with a box of fresh food. Others, like this pilot program in Pennsylvania External Site for low-income people with diabetes, operate a fresh food pharmacy on the grounds of a hospital — complete with nutrition education and meal plans. Recipients of these food prescriptions have reported positive changes like weight loss, an increase in physical activity, and significant drops in blood sugar and blood pressure — enough to begin weaning from medications in some cases.

The reason these programs are so successful is that doctors aren’t just advising their patients to eat healthier — they’re helping them access fresh food if they’re unable to do so themselves.

Not just a motivational tool

Food-insecure adults and children, who have limited financial resources, are more at-risk for negative health outcomes, because the cheapest possible source of calories are often low in nutrients and high in sugar, unhealthy fats and preservatives.

In addition to inspiring healthier habits in those already living with chronic illness, food prescription programs help food-insecure individuals make healthier choices. This, in turn, helps prevent diet-related diseases — especially if children are on the receiving end and grow up exposed to healthy food.

Creating a healthier hometown

Mason City, Iowa, is just one example of a community that’s implemented a food prescription program to help lower-income residents access fresh produce and learn about proper nutrition.

After filling out a questionnaire about healthy habits, patients at the Community Health Center of Mason City can receive a $5 voucher once a week for fresh fruits and vegetables at the Hy-Vee grocery stores in town. For those who can’t easily get to the store, the clinic provides tokens for the city transit system — effectively removing all barriers to filling their produce prescription. When they pick up their vouchers, patients can try fruit-infused water and fresh fruit and get healthy recipes with information on portion sizes. And, once a month, three Hy-Vee dietitians do healthy food demonstrations on-site.

This initiative is made possible through 5-2-1-0, an Iowa Department of Public Health program External Site that encourages healthier living. Mason City also participates in Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Opens New Window, which works with communities in Iowa and South Dakota to help identify ways for residents to eat well, move more and feel better. For the second year in a row, Mason City won the Healthy Hometown Community Award for taking steps to improve the quality of life for residents in those areas.

Making healthier choices

With the strong link between poor diet and chronic disease, it's important that everyone has access to healthy, nutritious food. Just by eating less salt, red and processed meat, and sugary drinks full of empty calories, you'll feel better and reduce your risk of chronic illness. If you've already been diagnosed with a diet-related disease, talk to your personal doctor about how to get more of the right foods into your body — and how regular consumption of fruits and vegetables can pair with your current treatment plan. Need some inspiration for healthier meals? Check out our recipes. From breakfast items to desserts, you're sure to find something to please even the pickiest of eaters.