What if instead of prescribing pills for health concerns, we turned to the power of fruit and veggies? After all, many of the prescription pills out there are derived from plant compounds we could otherwise get from the food we eat (but without all the other additives).
The concept of “prescribing” fruit and veggies isn’t new. Back in 2016, doctors in Flint, Michigan began taking on the American health crisis by offering children an innovative type of prescription: fruit and vegetables.
Any child over the age of six months who visited the Hurley Children’s Center in downtown Flint was qualified to redeem a $15 prescription that could be filled at the city’s Fulton Street Farmers Market or a YMCA Veggie Van. The doctors reasoned that nutritious food is the best medicine, and if youth are going to grow up healthy, they need healthy food.
Now, a team of researchers at Tufts University are making the case that subsidized fruit and vegetables could prevent millions of cases of chronic disease.
“Prescribing” Fruit and Veggies To Cut Health Care Costs
According to the CDC, 60% of disease in the U.S. are chronic and lifestyle-driven, and nearly half of the population has two or more chronic health conditions including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes or chronic kidney disease (1). These leading causes of death and disability are the leading drivers of the nation’s $3.3 trillion in annual healthcare costs. Not only that, but over the last 50 years, U.S. healthcare expenditures tripled, from 5% of gross domestic product in 1960 to 17.9% in 2016 (2).
Clearly, it’s important that we prioritize health to cut health care costs. But how do we do that? Well, one study has found that a simple way to do so would be “prescribing” fruit and veggies to those in need. By doing so, the study postulates, could save America over $100 billion in healthcare costs by preventing millions of cases of chronic disease.
The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, provides compelling evidence for the distribution of food prescriptions and subsidies via Medicare and Medicaid, the largest U.S. federal health insurance programs that together cover 1 in 3 Americans.
The team followed adults aged between 35 and 80 who were enrolled in Medicare and/or Medicaid. They then evaluated two scenarios: In the first, Medicare and Medicaid would cover 30 percent cost of purchase of only fruit and vegetables. The other model covered 30 percent of the cost of whole grains, nuts, seeds, seafood, and plant oils – in addition to fruit and vegetables.
The first incentive could prevent 1.93 million cardiovascular disease events, which could spiral into 350,000 deaths annually, the researchers said. It would also save about $40 billion in healthcare costs.
The second incentive, which incorporated even more healthy foods, would, in turn, save even more lives. The model showed that the second scenario could prevent 3.28 million cardiovascular disease events, as well as 620,000 deaths annually driven by that disease. It also could prevent 120,000 diabetes cases, and save over $100 billion in healthcare costs.
“Both scenarios were cost-effective at five years and highly cost-effective at 10 and 20 years and over a lifetime,” reads the study.
“The fruit and vegetable program has been implemented through some nonprofit and private insurance programs, showing an increased intake of fruits and vegetables and an improvement in measurable outcomes such as [the ingestion of] glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides,” Lee said. “However, programs like these have not been implemented at scale, nor evaluated for cost-effectiveness.”
Let Food Be Thy Medicine
Food as medicine has been advocated across different healthcare and wellness industries for decades. I personally changed my lifestyle when I was just sixteen years old, and eventually turned it into a career of spreading the word once I realized the incredible health changes I experienced (hence the creation of Live Love Fruit).
In private health insurance programs, healthy food prescriptions are now becoming a regular thing. In fact, the new 2018 Farm Bill includes a $25 million Produce Prescription Program to further evaluate this approach.
The Produce Prescription Program is apart of the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, which revolves around the concept that poverty should never be an obstacle to healthy food. The Local Farm Acts bill in October 2017 was created to provide “a new food-as-medicine pilot program to support fruit and vegetable prescription for low-income individuals,” which was ultimately incorporated into the 2018 Farm Bill.
According to representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) (4):
Produce prescription programs – like the one run by national nonprofit Wholesome Wave – allow doctors not only to write scripts for healthy foods, but to distribute vouchers so that patients can buy these products from local vendors. In Los Angeles, Wholesome Wave reported that 93 percent of participants met produce-consumption guidelines by the end of the program.Chellie Pingree
For more than 66 million Americans who struggle to afford healthy food on a daily basis, this Produce Prescription Program is a huge win for food justice.
Eating healthy massively lessens the likelihood of developing diet-related conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, which not only risk ones life, but also places massive financial burden on the healthcare system.
“Diet related diseases are major contributors to healthcare expenditures,” Lee told Inverse. “Our findings suggest that prescribing healthy foods could be highly cost-effective — about as cost-effective as preventative drug treatments for hypertension or high cholesterol.”
Lee believes that as more money goes toward prescription pilot programs, healthy food consumption will increase, thereby improving health and reducing diet-related costs.