A novel way to get patients to eat their fruits and vegetables: Have them grow their own!

A novel way to get patients to eat their fruits and vegetables: Have them grow their own!
A novel way to get patients to eat their fruits and vegetables: Have them grow their own!

There are times when a hands-on approach can provide the best results. For example, we know that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is beneficial in preventing and fighting cancer. Similarly, the health benefits of exercise are indisputable. However, getting survivors and patients with cancer to take advantage of these well-known facts can often prove to be difficult. For Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, PhD, RD, the answer was simple: use the hands-on approach to encourage patients and survivors to start their own vegetable gardens and provide help for them along the way.


Demark-Wahnefried and her group call their program Harvest for Health.1 The associate director for cancer prevention and control in the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Demark-Wahnefried is also a professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Nutrition Sciences and a registered dietitian.

The Harvest for Health program has several goals. Based on prior studies, the developers of Harvest for Health hypothesized that a gardening intervention would improve a patient's physical activity, quality of life, and physical functioning. The group also theorized that the process of growing fruits and vegetables would increase the patient's consumption of these foods. Prior studies documented that community-based gardening programs can lead to the participants having increased physical activity and functioning, a healthier diet, and improvements in psychosocial well-being and health-related quality of life.2,3

Fresh air, exercise, and the joy of growing what you eat—how could that not make someone feel better? In order to evaluate just how much better, the Harvest for Health team designed a pilot study of a 1-year gardening intervention in 2011. The study was a community-based partnership between UAB and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. There were eight adults (mean age 56 years) and four children (mean age 10 years) enrolled, with an even distribution of males and females. Their cancers were breast, prostate, or any childhood cancer. Although the children were still being treated, the adults had undergone treatment 2 years earlier. All had permission from their oncologists to take part in the project. The primary caregivers of the children also participated.1


For this study, the research team recruited Master Gardeners from the Master Gardener Program. This nationwide program is offered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and is available through each state's Cooperative Extension System. The program recruits and trains volunteers to educate the public about landscaping and gardening. In order to be certified as a Master Gardener, an applicant volunteers for at least 60 hours of instruction and community service, often with an annual follow-up. Demark-Wahnefried's group easily recruited Master Gardeners from nearby localities to work with the patients in 12 one-on-one teams. Each patient and Master Gardener worked together to plan, plant, maintain, and harvest three gardens at the homes of the patients.


The research team completed physical and psychological assessments of the subjects at baseline, 6 months, and 1 year. After 1 year, 60% of the participants increased their physical activity by more than 30 minutes per week, while 40% increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by at least one serving a day. On study completion the participants exhibited more strength, especially in their hands. They also showed better mobility and were able to get up and down more easily.

The feedback from patients and Master Gardeners alike was extremely positive. Many of the cancer survivors said that gardening encouraged them to eat a healthier diet, especially more vegetables. They all planned to continue gardening, and one participant enrolled in the Master Gardener program so that she could help other cancer survivors, as she was helped. The Master Gardeners who worked on the study were extremely enthusiastic. 

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