Sticking to dietary recommendations could save 33,000 lives a year

Sticking to dietary recommendations could save 33,000 lives a year

Science | Health

16 Dec 10

If everyone in the UK ate their ‘five a day’ and kept to recommended levels of salt and unhealthy fats, 33,000 deaths could be prevented or delayed every year, an Oxford University study has found.

The research, co-funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), highlights the difference getting your five a day could make to the nation’s health.

Eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day would make the greatest difference to health, potentially preventing up to 15,000 deaths a year, the study shows. It would need recommended salt and fat intakes to be drastically reduced to achieve similar health benefits.

Dr Peter Scarborough, from the University of Oxford’s BHF Health Promotion Research Group, who led the research, says: ‘Meeting dietary recommendations would have a massive effect on the health of the nation. According to our model, the biggest impact would be eating more fruit and veg.

‘But this doesn’t mean you should just stop at five – the more the better. In some European countries like Greece and Italy they get to five a day easily. Adding fruit and veg into your daily diet is achievable for everyone.’

The Oxford researchers, writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, base their findings on national data for the years 2005 to 2007 for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

They used data on deaths from coronary heart disease, stroke and cancers; figures on the food and nutrients we consume; and analyses of several previous studies on the contribution of diet to serious illness and premature death.

They fed this information into a model to calculate the number of lives that could be saved if UK dietary recommendations on the consumption of fats, salt, fibre and fruits and vegetables were all met.

These stipulate the daily consumption of five portions of fruits and vegetables; 18 g of fibre; a third of total energy to be provided by fats, with saturated fat comprising 10% of this; and a maximum 6 g of salt.

In 2007, none of the UK countries met any of these recommendations, with Scotland and Northern Ireland the furthest away from achieving them.

Their calculations showed that the recommendation for fruit and vegetables – ‘five a day’ – made the largest contribution, staving off more than 7000 deaths a year from coronary heart disease and almost 5000 from cancer, adding up to more than 15,000 preventable deaths a year.

Dr Scarborough and colleagues also show that nearly 4000 annual deaths could be prevented by sticking to the recommendations on dietary fibre, while those on fats and salt would save almost 7000, and 7500, respectively.

When taken together, the figures add up to 33,000 lives a year, say the researchers.

Earlier this month, a different study by Professor Tim Key of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, concluded that there was no convincing evidence that eating five fruit and veg a day reduced the likelihood of developing cancer – though it did not look at coronary heart disease and stroke.

The study by Professor Key warned that some of the results showing weak links between eating more fruit and vegetables and cancer incidence may be due to other factors that couldn’t be corrected for sufficiently, such as smoking and alcohol consumption. So although the study by Dr Scarborough and colleagues uses the best evidence of the link between fruit and vegetables and cancer, this particular strand of evidence should be treated with some caution.

While boosting fruit and vegetable consumption would have the most positive effect on health outcomes, there is scope for more to be achieved by lowering recommended levels of salt and fat consumption, the authors add.

‘In order to achieve a reduction in mortalities similar to those attained by achieving the fruit and vegetables recommendation, the salt recommendation should be set at 3.5 g per day,’ they say. ‘To achieve a similar reduction in cardiovascular mortalities, the saturated fat recommendation should be set at 3% of total energy.’

Victoria Taylor, Senior Dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, says: ‘This highlights that well worn dietary messages – like eating five portions of fruit and veg a day – shouldn’t be overlooked, because they could have a huge impact on our health.

‘We need to keep promoting initiatives that will help people to make healthier choices and improve their diet. Prevention really is the key to improving the nation’s heart health.’