Using data from the Coronary Artery Risk Developing in Young Adults (CARDIA) cohort, a recent study analyzed the link between fruit and vegetable consumption in early adulthood and future heart risk. First started in 1985, the CARDIA study follows thousands of healthy young adults to learn more about the development of heart disease—the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States.
More than 2,500 U.S. adults were included in the recent analysis, all of whom were 18–30 years old and free of heart disease at the beginning of the study. Participants were followed for 20 years, providing information about their diet and lifestyle through health questionnaires. Surveys included questions like “Do you eat fresh fruit?” and “Which fruits from the following list do you eat and how often?”. Findings were published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.
CT scans were also used to assess participants’ heart health after 20 years of follow-up. These scans take pictures of the heart’s arteries to identify coronary artery calcium (CAC)—a dangerous build-up of calcium on the artery walls that increases risk for heart disease and heart attack.
Based on analysis, reported fruit and vegetable intake varied widely among study participants. Median fruit and vegetable intake ranged from 2.6–7.2 servings per day for men and 3.3–8.9 servings a day for women. After following participants for 20 years, researchers found that individuals with the highest fruit and vegetable intake were 26% less likely to have calcium build-up in the arteries than those with the lowest intake. Findings were still significant after taking into account other dietary factors like consumption of fried foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Findings add to a wealth of evidence that fruits and vegetables help reduce risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases. However, experts are quick to point out that fruits and vegetables are just one important part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
In this study, individuals consuming the highest amounts of fruits and vegetables had healthier diets in general. For example, they reported eating less beef, fried potatoes and desserts, and consumed fewer sugar-sweetened beverages. Adults with high fruit and veggie intake also reported using less salt when cooking and ate less frequently at fast food restaurants. So while fruits and vegetables help boost heart health, other healthy choices also play an important role in reducing risk for heart disease.
The take home message, as experts explain, is that fruits and vegetables are a key part of a heart-healthy diet. Eating fruits and vegetables doesn’t cancel out other unhealthy habits. Rather, eating plenty of fruits and veggies as part of a well-balanced diet can go a long way in improving cardiovascular and overall health.