Do you remember fighting with your parents about eating vegetables? Do you have those battles with your own children now? Keep at it. Waiting until you’re “older” to start eating right may backfire on you.

What you eat as a young adult may be as important as what you eat as an older adult.

Young people tend not to associate what they put in their bodies with their future health, and they often fail to grasp that their health habits can either increase or prevent the likelihood of chronic illness or early death.

Heart disease is a good example. A new study has found that people who ate the most fruits and vegetables when they were younger had healthier arteries when they reached middle-age.

Researchers at the Minneapolis Heart Institute looked at health information from people participating in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study dating back to 1985. They collected information on participants’ diet, blood pressure, smoking status, weight, and other lifestyle habits and their cardiovascular risk factors at the beginning of the study.

Twenty years later, each participant underwent a CT scan to look for calcium buildup in the arteries of the heart and was given a coronary calcium score.

The scans revealed the presence and amount of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, the underlying cause of many kinds of heart disease. The higher the coronary artery calcium score a person had, the greater the person’s risk for heart attack and other types of heart disease.

People who were eating the most fruits and vegetables (seven to nine half-cup servings a day) when the study began were 26 percent less likely to have developed calcified plaque in their arteries 20 years later compared to the people who ate the least (two to three servings a day).

While other studies have shown that eating more produce is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease among middle-aged people, this is the first study to look at whether consumption of fruits and vegetables in young people led to better heart health later in life.

“People shouldn't assume that they can wait until they're older to eat healthy — our study suggests that what you eat as a young adult may be as important as what you eat as an older adult,” lead author Michael D. Miedema, M.D., senior consulting cardiologist and clinical investigator at the Minneapolis Heart Institute, said in a statement.

A simple, inexpensive, low-tech intervention like eating more fruits and vegetables can do a lot to reduce the rate of heart disease and the cost of medications and medical procedures to treat it. The importance of eating plenty of fruits and vegetables from an early age cannot be over-emphasized. Public health initiatives aimed at everyone from new parents to school-age children to college students should spread the message tirelessly.

The study is published in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation.