Prescribing Vegetables, Not Pills

May 11, 2015 Updated: May 12, 2015

From 2010 to 2014, more than 5,600 low-income families have taken part in The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx). This innovative program, created by nonprofit organization Wholesome Wave, joins healthcare providers, farmers markets and children with diet-related diseases, including obesity and type 2 diabetes.

To date, more than 1,100 overweight or obese children have taken part in the program, receiving a ‘prescription’ for fruits and vegetables that can be redeemed at farmers markets for fresh produce.

In New York, the FVRx program is run in so-called ‘food deserts,’ where fast food restaurants are easier to come by (and often less expensive) than fruits and vegetables. Among 550 children enrolled at two New York hospitals, 97 percent reported eating more fruits and vegetables (as did 96 percent of their families).

Also impressive, more than 90 percent of the families said they shopped at farmers’ markets weekly while 70 percent reported understanding more about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. About 40 percent of the children also lost weight after just four months.

It’s these types of simple, innovative programs that can make a major difference in individual lives, public health and the surrounding communities. Even the farmers participating in the program benefit, as they reported selling more produce and increasing their income by close to 37 percent.

(Shutterstock)
Peppers: red, green, yellow and hot, are healthy! (Shutterstock)

One in Four Americans Eat Hardly Any Vegetables at All

The latest data shows that nearly 23 percent of Americans report consuming vegetables and fruits less than one time daily, with a median vegetable intake of only 1.6 times per day overall.

Yet, I firmly believe we all need to eat large amounts of fresh, high-quality vegetables every day to achieve high-level health. Most vegetables are not very calorie dense and as a result they probably should constitute the bulk of your diet by volume. 

The largest volume of your food should be vegetables. Vegetables contain an array of antioxidants and other disease-fighting compounds that are very difficult to get anywhere else. 

Plant chemicals called phytochemicals can reduce inflammation and eliminate carcinogens, while others regulate the rate at which your cells reproduce, get rid of old cells, and maintain DNA. Studies have repeatedly shown that people with higher vegetable intake have:

    • Lower risks of stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease 
    • Higher scores on cognitive tests 
    • Lower risks of certain types of cancer, eye diseases, and digestive problems 
    • Higher antioxidant levels 
    • Reduced risk of kidney stones and bone loss 
    • Lower biomarkers for oxidative stress 
(liz west/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Enjoy asparagus this spring! (liz west/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

You Can Cut Your Risk of Dying Prematurely Nearly in Half

…Just by eating more vegetables! Eating any amount of vegetables is better than none at all, but the benefits increase with more servings. One study found:

      • Those who ate five to seven servings of vegetables and fruits per day had a 36 percent lower risk of dying from any cause
      • Three to five servings was associated with a 29 percent lower risk
      • One to three servings was associated with a 14 percent lower risk

But perhaps most strikingly of all, people who ate seven or more portions of vegetables and fruit a day had a 42 percent lower risk of dying from any cause, compared to those who ate less than one portion. They also enjoyed a 31 percent lower risk of heart disease and a 25 percent lower risk of cancer. 

Vegetables had a larger protective effect than fruits. So while consuming small amounts of whole fruit is fine if you’re healthy, your focus should be on vegetables. When broken down by vegetables only, each additional daily portion of fresh veggies lowered participants’ risk of death by 16 percent compared to 4 percent for fresh fruit.

Tips for Eating More Vegetables if You’re On a Tight Budget

Some of the healthiest vegetables are also among the least expensive. Take cabbage, which you can eat on its own or use as a base for fermented vegetables. Fermenting is one of the best ways to turn ordinary vegetables into superfoods. 

The culturing process produces beneficial microbes that are extremely important for your health as they help balance your intestinal flora, thereby boosting overall immunity. When fermenting vegetables, you can either use a starter culture or simply allow the natural enzymes, and good bacteria in and on the vegetables, to do all the work. 

This is called “wild fermentation.” Personally, I prefer a starter culture, as it provides a larger number of different species and the culture can be optimized with species that produce high levels of vitamin K2.

No matter which technique you use, you can produce gallons of fermented vegetables for just a few dollars. Another tip is to grow your own sprouts at home. Sprouts are a superfood that many people overlook, as they offer a concentrated source of nutrition that’s different from eating the vegetable in its mature form. 

Sprouts provide some of the most nutrient-dense food you can eat and can contain up to 30 times the nutrient content of home-grown organic vegetables. They’re also inexpensive and easy to grow with very little space and time. 

Some of the most common sprouts include alfalfa, mung bean, wheatgrass, peas, broccoli, and lentils—but my personal favorites are sunflower. You can even sprout garlic! Sprouts have the following beneficial attributes:

      • Support for cell regeneration
      • Powerful sources of antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and enzymes that protect against free radical damage
      • Alkalinizing effect on your body, which is thought to protect against disease, including cancer (as many tumors are acidic)
      • Abundantly rich in oxygen, which can also help protect against abnormal cell growth, viruses, and bacteria that cannot survive in an oxygen-rich environment

Of course, you needn’t stop with sprouts. Growing your own vegetables is one of the best ways to get inexpensive fresh produce. Replace your lawn or shrubs with a vegetable garden—just be careful about your local zoning laws – or use containers. If a garden is not feasible, join a local food coop or frequent farmers’ markets (many of these now accept food stamps, too).

(NadiaCruzova/iStock)
Eat avocado (it’s actually a fruit). (NadiaCruzova/iStock)

What are the Best Vegetables You Can Eat?

To a large extent, the best vegetables for you are those that appeal to your palate and agree with you. I highly recommend listening to your body, in that the foods you eat, including vegetables, should leave you feeling satisfied and energized. 

That being said, I strongly advise you to avoid wilted vegetables of any kind, because when vegetables wilt, they lose much of their nutritional value. And while I typically recommend choosing organic vegetables as much as possible to avoid pesticides (as well as boost nutrition), wilted organic vegetables may actually be less healthy than fresh conventionally farmed vegetables. 

Freshness is a key factor in vegetable quality, so if you can’t grow your own, look for those farmed locally or, better still, farmed locally and organically. My recommended list of vegetables provides a guide to the most nutritious vegetables, and those to limit due to their high carbohydrate content. 

If you want more details about the specific nutrients and health benefits of different veggies, we’ve compiled an extensive review of the health benefits of vegetables in our Mercola Food Facts Library. However, as a general guide, the following list of vegetables details some of the best and worst vegetables for your health.

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