Investing in fruits, vegetables can save lives, reduce health care costs

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Increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables could save more than 100,000 lives and $17 billion in health care costs from heart disease each year in the United States, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

11 trillion reward - UCS reportThe report, The $11 Trillion Dollar Reward, explains that better federal agricultural policies, designed to encourage production of healthy food instead of processed junk foods, will help reap those benefits.

If Americans consumed just one additional serving of fruits or vegetables a day, the nation would save $5 billion in health care expenditures and prevent 30,301 heart disease and stroke deaths annually. And if Americans were to go a step further and eat a full 2.5 cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit daily, as recommended by federal dietary guidelines, it could prevent 127,261 deaths each year and save $17 billion in medical costs. The economic value of the lives saved from cardiovascular diseases is an astounding $11 trillion, according to the report.

The report researchers advocate for cost-effective policies that increase access to and reduce the cost of domestically grown fruits and vegetables for consumers, especially for low-income consumers who are hardest hit by cardiovascular disease and other diet-related illnesses. Low-income neighborhoods–where some 30 million Americans reside–are often far from grocery stores and other sources of fresh produce, hindering access.

Current federal agricultural policies channel taxpayer dollars into subsidies for commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, which are used as feed for livestock, biofuels and as processed food ingredients. These policies offer few incentives for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables–effectively discouraging production of the very foods federal dietary guidelines recommend.

A three-minute video produced by UCS summarizes how we can achieve an $11 trillion reward through forward-looking agricultural policies.

1. O’Hara JK. The $11 Trillion Reward: How Simple Dietary Changes Can Save Lives and Money, and How We Get There. Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013.

Food fried in olive or sunflower oil is not linked to heart disease

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Eating food fried in olive or sunflower oil is not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or death, according to a study of more than 40,000 adults aged 29-69 years in Spain.

The benefits of olive or sunflower oil can be attributed to the fact that they are less prone to deteriorating during frying, compared to other oils.
The oil used for frying deteriorates, especially when reused, through oxidation and hydrogenation, leading to a loss of unsaturated fats and an increase in trans fats. When food is fried it loses water and absorbs this degredated oil, increasing its energy density.

The study researchers pointed out that these results are directly applicable only to other Mediterranean countries with frying methods similar to those in Spain. For example, oil (mainly olive and sunflower) rather than solid fat is used for frying in Spain. And these oils are not likely to be reused multiple times for foods eaten at home. Finally, consumption of fried snacks high in salt is fairly low in Spain, whereas in other countries such as the United States they provide an important percentage of energy intake.

“Frying with other types of fats, reusing oils several times, or consuming fried snacks high in salt may still be harmful,” the study concluded.

1. Guallar-Castillón P, Rodríguez-Artalejo F, Lopez-Garcia E, et al. Consumption of fried foods and risk of coronary heart disease: Spanish cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study. BMJ 2012; 344: published 24 Jan 2012. (open access)

Asian Americans and obesity in California

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Studies show that foreign-born Asian Americans are significantly less overweight and obese than U.S.-born Asian Americans. A new study from California finds that Asian Americans who retain their Asian language are more likely to have a healthy weight. The study pinpoints those who have lost their heritage language and culture as particularly at risk for becoming overweight or obese.

One major reason for the increase in obesity is that acculturation into American culture is likely to increase the consumption of unhealthy food such as burgers, fries and soda. Promoting healthy eating and physical activity associated with the heritage culture of Asian Americans who only speak English may help prevent their increased risk for being overweight or obese.

The study authors suggest further research is needed to determine why retaining heritage culture helps prevent obesity and how the protective behaviors can be extended after each generation.

1. Wang S, Quan J, Kanaya AM, Fernandez A. Asian Americans and obesity in California: a protective effect of biculturalism. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, published online 13 Dec 2010. (open access)