8 Weeks of a Diet Rich in Fruits and Vegetables Can Improve Heart Health

  • New research shows that eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables can produce better cardiovascular health.
  • Potassium, magnesium, and fiber are key nutrients in fruits and vegetables that may boost heart health.
  • Whole foods rather than processed health products are generally the best delivery vehicle for high-quality nutrients.
  • Experts recommend making incremental changes to your diet, such as cutting out sugary soda.

An apple a day isn’t guaranteed to keep the doctor away, but following this philosophy is a good strategy for overall heart health.

That’s according to new research published today in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

The observational study looked at the data of people following a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, along with those following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.

This data was compared with a typical American diet given to a different group.

After 8 weeks, researchers said that people on the fruit and vegetable diet, as well as those on the DASH diet, had a lower risk of cardiac damage compared with the control group.

Their research coincides with another small study published last week that concluded that even one meal high in saturated fats can hamper your ability to mentally focus.

The researchers stated that people should eat more fruits and vegetables, especially those dark in color, for a variety of health reasons.

Dr. Stephen P. Juraschek, the senior author of the study published today and an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, told Healthline that he and his colleagues are trying to determine what nutrients are associated with better heart health.

“One of the questions that has frequently been asked over the years about DASH is, ‘What is the silver bullet or the secret in the sauce?’” he explained. “The vegetable diet and the DASH diet both share potassium, magnesium, and fiber. Those are the three that stand out the most.”

Delivery system is important

“It’s tricky with a dietary approach to just research the components. Sometimes, it’s more natural to emphasize a pattern because that’s how we eat. We don’t eat just one thing,” Juraschek said. “On the flip side, there could be a number of different components that may be contributory that we’re not measuring right.”

In other words, it’s difficult to boil cardiovascular health down to the individual compounds that can be found in your food or in a supplement bottle.

Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, a cardiologist and chief medical officer for Step One Foods, says that fruits and vegetables tend to punch above their weight when it comes to delivering nutrition.

“If you isolate the vitamins from blueberries, for example, and put them in a pill, it won’t be the same as getting the exact same amount of vitamin C from a bowl of blueberries,” she explained. “There’s something about the delivery vehicle where your body knows exactly what to do with the nutrients.”

“If you look at these ‘healthy’ products in the grocery store, they’re focused on one nutrient of interest, but the delivery vehicle is full of all these ingredients, all this junk,” Klodas said.

While drugs and medications are necessary for certain conditions, good nutrition starts with what’s on your dinner plate, she says.

“I think part of the process is explaining it correctly,” she said. “Whether it’s high cholesterol or high blood pressure, many people don’t ever address why those things are abnormal in the first place. If you peel it back, it’s in part or in whole due to diet. If a condition is caused in part or in whole by foods, step one should be changed. But we don’t want to do that; we just throw pills at it.”

Every step matters

Asking someone to change their diet — moving from the fat and carb-heavy typical American diet to one based around fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods — is an intimidating proposition.

If you’re contemplating making the switch, it’s more helpful — and less daunting — to look at it as a series of small steps rather than a mountain to climb.

“Most people, I think, are under the impression that you have to do yoga and run triathlons. Lifestyle should have an impact, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Klodas said.

Klodas says that she tries to point out how small changes can add up. As an example, she brings up the prospect of drinking one can of soda in a day, which doesn’t seem so bad in a vacuum but can add up quickly.

“One can a day is 30 cans a month and 365 in a year. That’s 30 cases a year,” she explained. “Try putting 30 cases of soda in your kitchen. It’s a lot of soda. What if, instead of that can of soda, you had a glass of water instead? That’s a health transformation. Instead of a cookie, eat an apple. That’s another health transformation.”

Thinking of food as medicine — or, conversely, thinking of unhealthy foods as counter-productive — can help change one’s approach to their diet, says Klodas.

“Pharmaceuticals are easy because you take a pill once or twice a day, then you go back to the doctor and measure the results,” she said. “Why not take the food-as-medicine idea to its full extent? Eat your meals, then go to your doctor and get your cholesterol checked. See what happens.”

“When you start building a positive cycle of reinforcement, it’s easier to get that salad for lunch instead of a burger,” Klodas said.

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