PhotoThe old adage “an apple a day” was on to something, according to a study that finds significant potential to prolong lives, improve health, and save health care costs by eating one additional daily serving of fruits and vegetables.

The study, released today by  the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) examines the linkage between fruit and vegetable intake and incidence of cardiovascular diseases. These diseases, the leading killer of Americans, include coronary heart disease and stroke, which together are responsible for 725,000 U.S. deaths each year.

The report finds that 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.

If Americans were to go a step further and ate a full 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 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.

“Eating right is good for your health, and it rewards both your wallet and the economy,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, an agricultural economist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program and author of the report. “Helping Americans eat more of the right foods should be a public policy priority.”

Instead, O'Hara said, current farm policies channel taxpayer dollars into subsidizing crops like corn and soybeans that are used as feed for livestock and as processed food ingredients, instead of encouraging farmers to grow fruits and vegetables.

“In addition to these perverse subsidies, these policies mean that consumers and taxpayers are footing the bill twice – once to subsidize commodity crops that become ingredients in unhealthy foods, and again to treat skyrocketing rates of costly diet-related illnesses such as heart disease and stroke,” said O’Hara.

Treating cardiovascular disease is expensive for individuals, and collectively for taxpayers who fund subsidized health insurance programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. In 2010 alone, the total cost of treating cardiovascular diseases amounted to $273 billion – and these costs are expected to reach $818 billion by 2030. 

“Our food system is quite literally making Americans sick and driving the country further into debt,” said O’Hara. “One solution is to enable better access to fruits and vegetables, and we can do this through incentives that make produce more available and affordable.”

The full text of the study is available online. 

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