If you love to eat but hate exercise, you’re in luck.
Eating just a few pieces of fruit and vegetables each day is the equivalent of taking thousands of steps for your physical fitness.
Over 2,000 participants had to run on a treadmill while their oxygen levels were measured by Harvard researchers.
People who stuck closely to a Mediterranean-style diet, comprising of lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, had the same fitness level as people who took around 4,000 steps per day in the researchers’ previous studies.
Fruit and vegetables are high in fiber, which works as a natural fat burner that can help boost your metabolism. They are also high in antioxidants which stave off inflammation and other health problems.
Higher scores in the food questionnaires indicated a better quality diet emphasizing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish and healthy fats and less red meat and alcohol
Lead author of the study Dr Michael Mi, of Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre, said: ‘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.
‘The improvement in fitness we observed in participants with better diets was similar to the effect of taking 4,000 more steps each day.’
Healthy diets are known to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer — two of America’s biggest killers.
Among people who do the same amount of physical activity, there are differences in fitness — suggesting additional factors are involved.
The study of 2,380 middle-aged American men and women identified nutrition as a key factor.
Participants completed a food frequency questionnaire to assess consumption of 126 items during the last year, ranging from never or less than once per month to six or more servings per day.
The information was used to rate diet quality using the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI; 0 to 110) and Mediterranean-style Diet Score (MDS; 0 to 25), which are both associated with heart health.
Higher scores indicated a better quality diet emphasizing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish and healthy fats and limiting red meat and alcohol.
Dr Mi said: ‘In middle-aged adults, healthy dietary patterns were strongly and favorably associated with fitness even after taking habitual activity levels into account.
‘The relationship was similar in women and men, and more pronounced in those under 54 years of age compared to older adults.’
Further analysis identified 24 metabolites — substances produced during digestion and released into the blood during exercise — that were linked to either poor or favorable diet and fitness.
Dr Mi said: ‘Our metabolite data suggest eating healthily is associated with better metabolic health, which could be one possible way that it leads to improved fitness and ability to exercise.’
The US team took into account age, sex, total daily energy intake, BMI (body mass index), smoking status, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diabetes and routine physical activity level.
The average AHEI and MDS were 66.7 and 12.4, respectively. Compared with 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 ‘peak VO2’ — the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise — respectively.
Dr Mi added: ‘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.
‘There are already many compelling health reasons to consume a high-quality diet, and we provide yet another one with its association with fitness. A Mediterranean-style diet with fresh, whole foods and minimal processed foods, red meat and alcohol is a great place to start.’
The study was published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.
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