The People's Perspective on Medicine

Why Grandma Was Right about Vegetables

An Australian study of older women found that those who eat the most vegetables are least likely to have atherosclerosis in their carotid arteries.

Your grandmother may have told you to eat your vegetables. Ours certainly urged us to do so. Was Grandma following her own advice? She should have. A new study from Australia reinforces the benefits of eating lots of produce (Blekkenhorst et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, April 4, 2018).

More Broccoli for Better Blood Vessels:

Researchers analyzed dietary surveys of 1,154 older women. These volunteers, who were at least 70 years old when the study began, also underwent carotid artery ultrasound to assess the thickness of these blood vessels.

The results were striking. The women who ate at least three servings of veggies a day had thinner carotid arteries. The thinner the better as it indicates less arterial plaque and greater flexibility. Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts were especially beneficial. For each additional 10 g of broccoli or cabbage the women ate each day, the thickness of their carotid artery walls dropped by a measurable 0.007 mm. (This is a very small measurement, but it is statistically significant.)

Now for the Bad News:

Less than 10 percent of the Australians who participated in this study consumed five or more daily servings of vegetables. This suggests that there is a lot of room for improvement in Australia, just as there is in America. According to the CDC, only about 9 percent of Americans get two to three cups of vegetables a day.

Previous Research on Vegetables and Blood Vessels:

This is not the first study to show that people who eat vegetables have healthier blood vessels. Last year, scientists published the results of dietary data from more than 3.5 million older Americans (Heffron et al, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, May 18, 2017 ). The participants averaged 65 years of age.

Fewer than one-third of the participants ate three servings or more of vegetables and fruits daily. However, the researchers found that people who ate the most produce had the lowest risk of peripheral artery disease.

What Is Peripheral Artery Disease?

In peripheral artery disease (PAD), the large blood vessels that carry blood to the limbs become narrow due to athersclerosis. As a result, they carry less oxygenated blood to hard-working muscles. Consequently, this condition causes pain and interferes with a person’s ability to function.

Since the legs are affected most often, a person with PAD often suffers pain or muscle cramps while walking or climbing stairs. The muscles may become overtired without much exertion. The pain usually disappears with rest, but it may crop back up again as soon as the person starts moving.

Avoiding PAD will greatly improve your quality of life. You’ll get a head start on that if you eat your vegetables.

How About a Mediterranean Diet?

Even earlier, researchers in Spain reported that the Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables and fruit reduced the risk of peripheral artery disease. A Mediterranean-type diet has previously been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dementia.

Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet:

A study published as a Research Letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that Spaniards randomly assigned to a Mediterranean diet with extra olive oil or nuts instead of to a low-fat control diet were less likely to develop peripheral artery disease (JAMA, Jan. 22/29, 2014).

When PAD reduces blood flow to the extremities, especially the legs, circulation may become compromised. People may find it difficult and painful to walk. Other symptoms may include cold feet, numbness, weakness, leg cramping and sores that don’t heal.

Those who got extra olive oil in addition to a standard Mediterranean diet were 66% less likely to develop symptoms of PAD during the roughly five years of follow-up.

Learn More:

Enjoying delicious Mediterranean-style meals with friends and family and staying active sound like a great prescription for artery health, with no unpleasant side effects. If you would like guidance on what constitutes a Mediterranean diet, we offer our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies, as a resource. In it, we describe the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), the low-carb diet and the Mediterranean diet.

You can also learn more about recipes that will help you learn how to cook veggies and incorporate them into your diet from our 2010 book, Recipes & Remedies From The People’s Pharmacy.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Many authorities believe that some ‘good for you’ vegetables such as broccoli should be cooked before eating because uncooked they reduce the absorption by the body of needed iodine.

Thanks for reminding us of the importance of eating vegetables. The study mentioned the additional benefits of eating just 10 g more. My calculator says that is only about one-third of an ounce (Is that a bite?). Just wondering how big a normal portion is. Thanks.

Usually, a normal portion of cooked vegetable is calculated at 1/2 cup. How much that weighs will depend on the vegetable!

My husband and I love vegetables. We almost always have a large salad with dinner, filled with green leaf lettuce, an assortment of vegetables, and often that includes broccoli. We also do stir fries with loads of vegetables or a small portion of protein with a large portion of vegetables are often on the menu. People who don’t like vegetables usually don’t know how to cook them properly.

Benefits of cruciferous vegetables — I do not disagree with your description of benefits, but I would provide this cautionary note: I placed a heavy emphasis on cruciferous vegetables for several years and had a bad brain stem stroke 5 years ago. Afterwards, I discovered that I have a clotting disorder, so I now take a “blood thinner” and carefully monitor my intake of foods containing vitamin K. You can find vitamin K in surprising places.

An intriguing part of this report is the beneficial effect of greater olive oil consumption. I’ve been reading about the benefits of a ketogenic diet (very high fat, lots of vegetables, moderate protein, no starches) for improving cognitive function in Alzheimers Disease sufferers. Looks as if that diet could help our blood vessels as well. I hope The People’s Pharmacy will look into this and report back to us.

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