Produce Prescriptions May Lead to Better Heart Health


Produce prescription programs were associated with increased consumption of fruits and vegetables as well as reduced blood sugar, body mass index, glucose levels, and food insecurity, according to a recent study.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed American Heart Association Journal, Circulation. The investigation aimed to determine whether produce presciption programs improved the health and access to food of those at risk for heart.

Produce prescription programs allow doctors to prescribe fruits and vegetables in addition to medication, according to Kurt Hager, PhD, MS, an instructor at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School in Worcester, Mass. With a prescription, patients receive electronic cards or vouchers to access free or discounted produce at retail grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

“We know that food insecurity impacts health through several important pathways, including overall dietary quality, but also through stress and anxiety, mental health, and tradeoffs between paying for food and other basic needs such as housing costs, utilities, and medications,” said Hager.

While previous studies have explored the impact of produce prescriptions, they were on small, individual programs. For this investigation, researchers pooled data from nine programs across the United States to analyze patients’ health outcomes after an average of six months.

Participants were given a median of $63 per month to purchase produce. In addition, they attended nutrition classes. The programs lasted for four to ten months, and participants were asked to complete questionnaires about their diet, food insecurity, and health status before and after, as well as routine testing.

After analysis, the study found:

  • Adults reported that their intake of fruits and vegetables increased by nearly one cup per day. Among children, intake of fruits and vegetables increased by about a quarter of a cup daily.
  • Systolic blood pressure decreased by over eight millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). In contrast, diastolic blood pressure decreased by nearly five mm Hg among adults who had high blood pressure at enrollment in the study.
  • As measured by HbA1C levels, blood sugar decreased by 0.29 to 0.58 percentage points among adults with diabetes.
  • BMI significantly improved, with a reduction of 0.52 kilograms per square meter (kg/m2) among adults with obesity. Among children, BMI did not change.
  • Adults were 62 percent more likely, and children were more than twice as likely to report better health status by program completion.
  • Overall, participants were one-third less likely to report food insecurity after completing the programs.

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