Too often people think of hospitals as places that just care for the sick. That’s part of what we do, of course. But another crucial part is keeping people healthy. And there’s no better way to inspire healthy eating than a market packed with local, farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. I’m convinced that our farmers’ market has helped make the people who work here and those who visit a little healthier.
For 30 years I’ve watched one patient of mine struggle with a weight problem. But once she began to do most of her shopping at the farmers’ market, she changed her diet to include more fruits and vegetables and lost close to 30 pounds. And on the elevator recently, I chatted with a man who works as an engineer at the hospital who told me he’d lost so much weight that his work clothes were too loose. When I congratulated him, he said, “Hey, this is really thanks to you and thanks to the market.” I’m so convinced of the health benefits of basing your diet around seasonal farm-fresh produce that I’ve even written prescriptions for patients for arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette.
Of course it’s hardly news that fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes are good for you—they provide fiber, vitamins and minerals. Still, the evidence for just how good they are continues to amaze me. Study after study shows that eating foods from the garden helps keep blood pressure and cholesterol from climbing and lowers the danger of developing diabetes. A nationwide study published a few years ago and coordinated by Kaiser Permanente in Oregon showed unequivocally that reducing salt intake and eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products significantly reduced blood pressure.
In one of the latest and most persuasive studies, researchers from Harvard gathered data from more than 72,000 women over two decades, as part of the well-known Nurses’ Health Study. Women who followed the so-called “prudent diet,” made up of many of the foods on display at farmers’ markets—fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains—had a 28 percent lower risk of dying of heart disease. In contrast, those who ate a “Western diet” rich in high-fat, sugary and processed foods had a 22 percent higher risk of dying of heart disease and a 16 percent higher cancer risk. For some of these women, the difference between these two ways of eating was literally a matter of life and death. I’m convinced it is for most of the rest of us as well.
The Mediterranean diet—abounding in fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains and healthy plant oils, such as olive and peanut oil—has become almost synonymous with optimal health. With good reason, as studies from around the world continue to show. A study published in the December 2007 Archives of Internal Medicine showed that the Mediterranean diet reduces risks of cancer and heart disease and improves the odds of living a long life. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Athens also showed a strong association between a largely plant-based diet and longevity. And when researchers at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in Spain, reviewed 35 studies, they found that the Mediterranean eating pattern improved cholesterol levels, boosted antioxidants, protected against insulin resistance (a risk factor for diabetes) and helped keep blood vessels healthy.
Several large studies have shown that people with heart disease can dramatically improve their health by making fruits and vegetables the centerpiece of their diet and replacing saturated fats (such as those you might get from dairy and meat) with unsaturated fats (such as those in avocados and nuts). That’s very good news, of course. But our real goal should be to prevent diseases in the first place.
That’s why I always find it a joy to see kids at our farmers’ market, and not only because they seem to be having such a good time. Starting healthier eating habits early in life is likely to offer the biggest payoff of all. Along with more physical activity, a healthy diet with nutrient-rich, low-calorie foods is just about the only prescription we have to end the epidemic of weight problems and diabetes among children. In many ways, a healthier diet will also help kids grow into healthy adults. Another study from Kaiser Permanente showed that a diet abundant in fruits and vegetables increased bone density during those critical teen years. I like to think the kids who come through our market and sample a fresh peach or a handful of cherry tomatoes will go on to make healthier choices for the rest of their lives.