HealthAgenda

Nutrition

Doctors prescribing vegies for better health

Most of us still aren’t eating enough vegetables. Now some doctors are driving the message home by writing vegie prescriptions.

Health Agenda magazine
January 2017

In Australia the idea of prescribing vegetables to address health conditions began in remote Aboriginal communities. A study in the Northern Territory found a quarter of the money local people spent on food was used to buy drinks, mostly sugary soft drinks, and only 5.4 per cent of their food budget was spent on vegetables.

These statistics led researcher Kerin O’Dea, Professor of Nutrition and Population Health at the University of South Australia, to recommend that doctors begin writing prescriptions for healthy food, such as vegetables, just as they do for medications.

In the United States some doctors are already using scripts to encourage people to eat more vegetables. Along with giving patients a prescription for their usual cholesterol or blood pressure medication, some GPs prescribe daily broccoli, carrots and other vegetables.

In New York families who visit doctors working at the Lincoln Medical Centre in the Bronx for health advice are prescribed their required medication, plus vegetables to help manage their weight and associated health problems, such as diabetes.

There is also a push to encourage more doctors to increase their knowledge of nutrition and how it can improve health. A growing number of conferences, courses and fellowships are providing in-depth training for general practitioners who are keen to increase their understanding of food as medicine.

Follow the script

Professor Vicki Flood, from the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney, believes vegie prescriptions are a potentially beneficial idea. “It’s a step in the right direction to encourage people to adopt eating practices that can have positive impacts on their health,” she says.

“There are a lot of messages out there about eating more vegetables, but the information doesn’t seem to be hitting home. If the information comes from a trusted GP, maybe people will pay more attention to eating vegetables. Perhaps people will take it more seriously if it’s actually written in a script.”

The Australian National Health Survey found that only 7 per cent of us eat the recommended five serves of vegies a day, despite plenty of established evidence about the health benefits of eating vegetables.

Cancer prevention

Last year a study from Cancer Council Australia showed one in three cancers could be prevented with positive lifestyle changes, including eating a balanced diet. The research found 7,000 new cancer cases each year are linked to not eating enough fruits, vegetables and fibre, and eating too much red meat.

Findings by the World Cancer Research Foundation in 2009 linked eating fruits and vegetables to a lower risk of cancer of the mouth, oesophagus, lung, larynx and some stomach cancers. These types of foods contain nutrients that mop up harmful chemicals in our bodies and help repair and protect against damage to DNA that can lead to disease.

Immune boosters

Researchers at the Walter+Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne also found that having plenty of leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, in our daily diet is important for maintaining a healthy immune system.

Certain immune cells found in the lining of our digestive system protect against ‘bad’ bacteria in the intestine. They may also help control food allergies, inflammatory diseases and obesity, and reduce the risk of bowel cancer. And it seems that green leafy vegetables help produce these important immune cells.

Gut health

Professor Flood says boosting our vegetable intake as part of a balanced diet can undoubtedly bring health benefits and if that means we need to get a vegetable script, she is fine with that. “Vegetables provide so many essential nutrients, such as folate, carotenoids and vitamin C through to fibre for good gut health,” she says.

“We also know eating dark green leafy vegetables is important for eye health because they are high in a nutrient called lutein, and there’s some emerging information that lutein also helps keep our brain tissue healthy too. Our body needs a range of coloured vegetables to enjoy the best of health.”

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