Eating a Few Servings of Fruits and Vegetables Each Day Is as Good as Walking 4,000 Extra Steps, Study Finds

Researchers found a clear connection between eating more produce and heart health.

Do you find it challenging to meet your daily step goal? You may not have to, depending on your diet. According to new research, consistently consuming more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains may be as good for your heart as walking an additional 4,000 steps per day.

The research, which was published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, sought to find whether a healthy diet is associated with physical fitness in adults. The study included 2,380 participants in the Framingham Heart Study—a long term, multi-generational study designed to identify common traits that contribute to cardiovascular disease. Across the participants, the average age was 54 years and 54 percent were women.

In addition to completing a high-intensity fitness assessment, participants completed the Harvard semi-quantitative food frequency questionnaire to assess intake of dietary items during the last year. Their responses, which ranged from once per month to six or more servings per day, were used to rate diet quality using two tests associated with heart heath: the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI; 0 to 110) and Mediterranean-style Diet Score (MDS; 0 to 25).

woman cutting avocado among healthy foods

Maryna Terletska / GETTY IMAGES

Higher scores indicated a diet that prioritizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, and healthy fats, while limiting red meat and alcohol. "This study provides some of the strongest and most rigorous data thus far to support the connection that better diets may lead to higher fitness," said study author Michael Mi of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in a press release. "The improvement in fitness we observed in participants with better diets was similar to the effect of taking 4,000 more steps each day."

The researchers controlled for various factors, including age, sex, total daily energy intake, smoking status, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diabetes, and regular physical activity level. The average AHEI was 66.7, while the average MDS was 12.4. Compared to the average score, an increase of 13 points on the AHEI and 4.7 on the MDS was associated with a 5.2 percent and 4.5 percent greater increase in oxygen intake during exercise respectively.

While the results found a connection between diet and improved fitness, more research is needed. "This was an observational study and we cannot conclude that eating well causes better fitness, or exclude the possibility of a reverse relationship, i.e. that fit individuals choose to eat healthily," Mi said.

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