March 19 (UPI) -- If the federal government prescribed healthy foods, it could save millions of dollars and lives, a new study says.
If Medicaid and Medicare provided fruits and vegetables, it could prevent cardiovascular disease in about 1.93 million beneficiaries, according to a study published Tuesday in PLOS Medicine.
An incentive plan that covered fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, seafood and plant-based oils would decrease cardiovascular disease by 3.28 million people over the same period, researchers said.
"We found that encouraging people to eat healthy foods in Medicare and Medicaid -- healthy food prescriptions -- could be as or more cost-effective as other common interventions, such as preventative drug treatments for hypertension or high cholesterol," Yujin Lee, a researcher at Tufts University and study first author, said in a news release. "Healthy food prescriptions are increasingly being considered in private health insurance programs, and the new 2018 Farm Bill includes a $25 million Produce Prescription Program to further evaluate this approach."
The study looked at the health and cost outcomes if Medicare and Medicaid covered 30 percent of both fruit and vegetable purchases, or if they covered 30 percent of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, seafood, and plant-based oils.
"Our findings support implementation and evaluation of healthy food prescriptions within healthcare systems to improve the diet and health of Americans," said Renata Micha, a researcher Tufts University and study co-senior author.
The fruit and vegetable incentive was estimated to save nearly $40 billion in heathcare costs, while the broader health food plan was projected to save more than $100 billion.
The researchers say Medicare and Medicaid are the largest health providers in the United States, covering a third of the people in the country and spending one in four dollars in the federal budget.
It's estimated that roughly 610,000 people die from cardiovascular disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"These new findings support the concept of Food is Medicine: That innovative programs to encourage and reimburse healthy eating can and should be integrated into the healthcare system," said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School at Tufts University and study co-first author.