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Low fruit and vegetable intake may account for millions of deaths

Findings from a new study suggest that inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables may be a major factor in heart disease death.
very few vegetables on a plate
Not eating enough fruits or vegetables may have dire consequences for cardiovascular health.

Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, fiber, potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants.

A diet that includes fruits and vegetables can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and improve digestive health.

Previous research — part of the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study — confirmed that a diet containing lots of fruits and vegetables can even lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.

After analyzing these results and combining them with findings from other studies, researchers estimated that the risk of heart disease is 20% lower among individuals who eat more than five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, compared with those who eat fewer than three servings per day.

The United States Department of Agriculture recommend that adults eat at least 1.5 to 2 cups per day of fruit and 2–3 cups per day of vegetables. According to another study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only around 1 in 10 adults meet these guidelines.

The global impact of inadequate nutrition

Now, a new study — the results of which the researchers presented at Nutrition 2019, the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting in Baltimore, MD — suggests that a low fruit intake can cause 1 in 7 deaths from heart disease, and that a low vegetable intake can cause 1 in 12 deaths from heart disease.

Analyzing data from 2010, researchers found that low fruit consumption resulted in almost 2 million deaths from cardiovascular disease, while low vegetable intake resulted in 1 million deaths. The global impact was more significant in countries with a low average consumption of fruits and vegetables.

The data suggest that low fruit consumption results in more than 1 million deaths from stroke and more than 500,000 deaths from heart disease worldwide every year, while low vegetable intake results in about 200,000 deaths from stroke and more than 800,000 deaths from heart disease per year.

“Our findings indicate the need for population-based efforts to increase fruit and vegetable consumption throughout the world,” says study co-author Victoria Miller, a postdoctoral researcher at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Medford, MA.

Tracking death toll by region, age, and sex

The researchers tracked the death toll by region, age, and sex using diet surveys and food availability data of 113 countries. They combined these with data on causes of death in each country and data on the cardiovascular risk linked to low fruit and vegetable intake.

The findings showed that fruit intake was lower in South Asia, East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, while vegetable consumption was lower in Central Asia and Oceania. Countries in these regions have low average fruit and vegetable intakes and high rates of deaths from heart disease and stroke.

When the researchers analyzed the impact of inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption by age and sex, they found that the biggest impact was among young adults and males. Miller adds that females tend to eat more fruits and vegetables.

These findings indicate a need to expand the focus to increasing availability and consumption of protective foods like fruits, vegetables, and legumes — a positive message with tremendous potential for improving global health.”

Senior study author Dariush Mozaffarian, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

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