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Low Fruit & Veggie Intake May Increase Your Risk Of Dying From This Condition

Image by Toma Evsuvdo / Stocksy
June 8, 2019

The age-old advice to eat your fruits and veggies makes complete sense—after all, these powerful plants are jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and a variety of phytochemicals that are essential for physical and mental health.

But now we have a much better idea of just how great fruits and vegetables are at...well, keeping us alive. A new study presented today at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition suggests that inadequate fruit and vegetable intake likely accounts for millions of deaths from heart attacks and strokes worldwide.

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Based on 2010 data, researchers estimate that low fruit intake (defined as less than 300 grams, the equivalent of two apples) was to blame for 1.8 million cardiovascular deaths, while low vegetable intake (less than 400 grams, the equivalent of 3 cups chopped carrots) resulted in 1 million deaths. To reach this conclusion, researchers estimated fruit and vegetable intake within various countries from diet surveys and food availability data, then combined it with data on causes of death from that year, among other factors.

While the association was strongest in countries that have the lowest fruit and veggie intake in general, including several countries in eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, it was still quite significant in the United States. Compared to the rest of the world, though, a lack of veggies seemed to be the bigger problem for Americans: Suboptimal vegetable intake was thought to account for 82,000 cardiovascular deaths while suboptimal fruit intake accounted for 57,000.

Because CVD is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. (and worldwide), this research suggests that—simply by getting people to eat a little more produce—we have amazing potential to slash the number of deaths caused by heart attacks and strokes. "Fruits and vegetables are a modifiable component of diet that can impact preventable deaths globally," said lead study author Victoria Miller, Ph.D., in a news release.

A couple of reasons fruits and veggies may be so cardioprotective: They're loaded with fiber, which helps trap and clear cholesterol from our system and feed the microbiome; they contain minerals, like magnesium, that help lower blood pressure; and they deliver a variety of antioxidants and plant compounds that have been shown to reduce inflammation. Of course, some people who are eating less produce could also be engaging in other unhealthy behaviors that increase their risk for cardiovascular problems (e.g., smoking or leading a sedentary lifestyle), but this study reveals that inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption is a significant part of the problem.

To reap the biggest cardiovascular benefit from your diet, though, you should look beyond the produce aisle. Based on previous research, other foods that seem to have a positive impact and lower risk for CVD include nuts, whole grains, olive oil, and fatty fish. This is why many experts recommend focusing on a Mediterranean-style diet. In fact, the landmark 2013 PREDIMED study1, which followed over 7,000 people, found that people eating a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil and nuts had a significantly lower risk of experiencing a major cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke.

In a world of trendy diets and quick-fix strategies, this research reinforces one of the simplest ways to boost heart health, overall health, and longevity: Eat more plants.

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