Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a big disease with many names. Also called coronary artery disease or arteriosclerosis, CHD occurs when plaque builds up in your arteries and blood vessels leading to your heart, causing them to become narrower and narrower, making it difficult for blood to flow properly.
Given that lifestyle factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, excess weight, too little exercise and a poor diet are all contributing factors for CHD, it’s no surprise that this disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.
One of the best ways to prevent heart disease seems to lie in adopting healthy (or healthier) lifestyle practices. While it’s a given that lowering your intake of trans fats, sugar and processed foods can go a long way to improving your health, adding in more fruits and vegetables is also beneficial.
But what exactly does that mean? Does apple juice confer as much benefit as a plain, old apple? Are cooked carrots better or worse than raw ones?
To Cook or Not to Cook
Dutch researchers set out to determine if there was any difference between raw and processed fruits and vegetables when it came to reducing the risk of CHD. To do so, they worked with a Dutch population-based cohort called the Monitoring Project on Risk Factors and Chronic Diseases in the Netherlands (MORGEN study).
The MORGEN study gathered information from more than 22,500 Dutch men and women aged 20 to 59 years old between 1993 and 1997. They asked participants about diet, lifestyle and cardiovascular risk factors. The participants were then followed for 10-plus years in regards to their cardiovascular health.
For this current study, researchers excluded women who had a total daily caloric intake of less than 500 calories a day or more than 4,500 calories daily and men with 800 and 5,000, respectively. That left them with a population pool of just over 20,000 participants.
When it came to the food questionnaire, participants were asked not only about types of fruits and vegetables and frequency of consumption, but also preparation. The questionnaire itself included 35 fruits and vegetables, with 9 raw fruits, 7 raw vegetables, 13 cooked vegetables, 2 vegetable juices, and 4 fruit juices/sauces.
The researchers defined processed fruits and vegetables as the juices, sauces (i.e., apple sauce and tomato sauce), canned or frozen options, and cooked. Raw was self-explanatory.
They found that the most frequently consumed raw fruits were apples and oranges, while tomatoes and cucumbers were the top choices for raw vegetables. The top processed fruits were citrus juice and apple juice, with French beans and Brussels sprouts heading up the processed veggies list.
But apparently the distinctions didn’t matter. Researchers found that total fruit and vegetable intake were inversely related to CHD incidences. In other words, the more produce they ate, the lower their risk for CHD.
When looked at independently, both fruits alone and vegetables alone were also inversely related to CHD incidence, though not as strongly as when they were combined. And when it came to raw versus processed, researchers noted an equally significant inverse association with CHD for both forms.
Given this, researchers concluded, “A high consumption [of] fruit and vegetables, whether consumed raw or processed, may protect against CHD incidence.”
Eat to Prevent Heart Disease
Whether the benefits had to do fiber, antioxidants or other phytonutrients, researchers couldn’t say for sure. Part of the conundrum has to do with the fact that while you lose the fiber in a juice, some nutrients in some foods (like carrots and tomatoes) are more bioavailable when cooked.
So what does this mean for you? Well it’s certainly good news.
It doesn’t matter how you get your fruits and veggies, just get them! Aim for at least two servings of fruit a day and five servings of vegetables to help prevent heart disease.
Here are simple, truly easy ways to do this:
- Whip up a quick frozen berry and fresh spinach protein shake for breakfast.
- Have an apple or pear as a mid-morning snack.
- Make a quick tossed salad for lunch. Include chopped romaine lettuce, cucumber, tomato, radishes, celery, chopped chicken or tuna, and crumbled goat cheese.
- Have a mid-afternoon snack of your choice.
- For dinner, grill some wild-caught salmon, asparagus or Brussels sprouts, and a sweet potato.
That’s two fruit servings and more than five vegetables right there, if not more. You could boost that even further by throwing in some veggies for your midday snack and some cherries for dessert.
 Oude Griep, LM et al. Raw and processed fruit and vegetable consumption and 10-yuear coronary heart disease incidence in a population-based cohort study in the Netherlands. PLoS ONE. 2010 Oct 25;5(10):e13609.