You Can Do It!

Fruits and vegetables can lead to lasting positive health impact

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) When you have a long list of unhealthy habits, it can feel intimidating to figure out how to begin turning your lifestyle around. Fortunately, just two things have a big impact.

A recent study has found simply decreasing TV or computer time and increasing fruit and vegetable intake can have a dramatic effect on getting you back on track to a healthier lifestyle.

"Trade chips for fruit and screen time for physical activity."

Bonnie Spring, PhD, a preventive medicine professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, led the study to find out how people might break bad habits, like eating too much saturated fat, eating too little fruits and vegetables, sitting too much and not getting enough physical activity.

The study involve 204 adults between the ages of 21 and 60 who all had those four unhealthy habits. Each adult was assigned to one of four treatments.

One treatment was to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables they ate and the amount of physical activity they got. Another was to decrease the saturated fat they ate and the time they spent sitting in leisure time, such as watching TV.

A third treatment involved decreasing fat intake while increasing physical activity, and the fourth involved increasing fruits and vegetables while decreases the amount of sedentary leisure time.

The treatment ran for three weeks, and the participants tracked their daily data into a personal digital assistant that was uploaded to a coach. Participants who met their goals during the three weeks could earn $175.

After those three weeks, participants were asked to send data three days each month for six months, for which they were paid $30 to $80 a month but without any bonus money for meeting their goals or continuing their lifestyle change.

The researchers found that the participants actually maintained a substantial number of the lifestyle changes. They increased their fruit and vegetable intake from 1.2 average servings a day to 5.5 servings during the three weeks, but even after six months, their average was 2.9 servings.

Likewise, the average time they spent in stationary leisure time dropped from 219.2 minutes a day to 89.3 minutes during the three weeks but only increased to 125.7 by the end of the six months, a little under half what it had been before the study began.

The participants also brought their daily average caloric intake from saturated fat from 12 percent to 9.4 percent at the end of the three weeks and 9.9 percent after six months.

The results over the next six months amazed Spring. "We thought they'd do it while we were paying them, but the minute we stopped they'd go back to their bad habits," she said. "But they continued to maintain a large improvement in their health behaviors."

About 86 percent of the participants said they tried to maintain the changes after they had made them initially for the study.

"There was something about increasing fruits and vegetables that made them feel like they were capable of any of these changes," Spring said. "It really enhanced their confidence."

She said that the nation's unhealthy habits could possibly be addressed by small changes that stick.

"Americans have all these unhealthy behaviors that put them at high risk for heart disease and cancer, but it is hard for them and their doctors to know where to begin to change those unhealthy habits," Spring said.

"This approach simplifies it. Just making two lifestyle changes has a big overall effect and people don't get overwhelmed," she said. "We found people can make very large changes in a very short amount of time and maintain them pretty darn well. It's a lot more feasible than we thought."

The study appeared online May 28 in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. The research was funded by grants from the National Institute of Heart, Lung and Blood, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University grant.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 31, 2012
Last Updated:
August 21, 2012