The message is everywhere: “Eat more fruit and vegetables.” Whether it’s to lose weight, maintain a healthy weight, or as a source of vitamins and minerals, fruit and vegetables seem to be the “go to” guys. Now, research published in the June 2002 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that eating fruit and vegetables may help you prevent cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke).

About the study

Researchers from Tulane University and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute studied 9608 adults in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Follow-up Study. Upon entering the study between 1971 and 1975, participants were between the ages of 25 and 74 and free of cardiovascular disease, meaning they had no history of heart attack, heart failure, or stroke.

Upon entering the study, participants underwent a complete medical examination, answered questions about their medical history, and completed two dietary questionnaires. The first questionnaire asked participants to recall everything they had eaten in the last 24 hours. Next, they answered a food frequency questionnaire that required them to estimate how often that ate different types of foods in the most recent three months.

Participants were followed up until 1992—an average of 19 years per participant. Researchers checked medical records and death certificates to determine which participants were diagnosed with or died of cardiovascular disease.

Finally, researchers compared the fruit and vegetable intake of people who developed or died of cardiovascular disease with those who did not.

The findings

Compared with people who ate fruit or vegetables once or less per day, those who ate them 3 or more times per day were:

  • 27% less likely to have a stroke
  • 42% less likely to die of stroke
  • 24% less likely to die of heart disease

Of note, however, is that fruit and vegetable intake did not appear to be associated with a reduced risk of developing heart disease, although it was associated with a reduced risk of dying of heart disease.

In calculating these statistics, the researchers controlled for the effects of known cardiovascular disease risk factors such as age, sex, diabetes, smoking, and physical activity.

Although these results are interesting, there are limitations to this study. Fruit and vegetable consumption was assessed only once, at the beginning of the study, so any changes in fruit and vegetable intake over the 19-year study period are not reflected in these results. In addition, the researchers did not ask people about their portion sizes. Without this information, it’s difficult to evaluate how many fruits and vegetables these people actually consumed. Finally, people who eat more fruit and vegetables may have better dietary habits in general—such as low saturated fat intake, high fiber intake, and a tendency not to overeat—which may influence cardiovascular risk.

How does this affect you?

Should you eat more fruit and vegetables? Absolutely. This study suggests that it may help you ward off stroke and reduce your risk of dying of heart disease or stroke.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to strive for the 5-a-day recommended by the National Cancer Institute. We know that fruit and vegetables contain a number of essential nutrients, including vitamins A, C and folic acid. And, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, which reduces your risk for many medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Finally, a great deal of research suggests that certain nutrients in fruit and vegetables may reduce the risk of certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and cataracts, among other diseases.