TIME Heart Disease

Cheaper Healthy Food Would Save Millions of Lives

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Danny Kim for TIME

Researchers calculate how life-saving a few cents can be

It’s one thing to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, but quite another to help them actually afford them. Study after study shows that fresh plant-based foods can lead to healthier hearts and fewer health problems, but for many, the produce aisles are economically out of reach.

In order to spur manufacturers and policy makers to make fruits and vegetables more affordable, researchers led by Dr. Thomas Gaziano at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School calculated exactly how much benefit reducing the cost of produce would have on heart disease rates.

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In a presentation at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology/Lifestyle meeting, they reported that a 10% drop in prices could prevent 515,000 heart-related deaths and 675,000 heart attacks and strokes by 2035. That amounts to about one more serving of fruits or vegetables a week. If that were increased to one additional serving a day, that could prevent up to 3.5 million deaths from heart disease over just two years.

Gaziano did his analysis while taking into account other factors such as aging, weight and blood pressure trends. He hopes that the calculations will highlight how important lifestyle factors such as diet are in influencing heart disease rates and deaths, and how even one more serving a day can prevent a significant number of deaths.

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Such data could be important for food assistance programs such as SNAP, and help families to incorporate more fresh foods into their diet and lower their risk of developing heart problems. “This shows that just changing your diet by eating one more piece of fruit or one more serving of vegetables a week can reduce your risk of heart problems by a significant amount,” he says. “On a population level, policy makers need to realize that it’s hard to get people to make changes in their diet. But certain policy changes, whether it’s taxes on unhealthy foods or subsidies for healthy ones, can make those choices easier for people and are worth looking into.”

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