English-style diet 'could save 4,000' in rest of UK

Junk food Should there be a junk food tax?

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Eating like the English could save 4,000 lives a year in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a study claims.

People in England eat more fruit and vegetables and less salt and fat, reducing heart disease and some cancers, say Oxford University experts.

A tax on fatty and salty foods and subsidies on fruit and vegetables could help close the diet divide, they add.

The British Heart Foundation says the study shows inequalities in the nations that must be addressed by authorities.

Death rates for heart disease and cancer are higher in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than in England, according to official figures.

Start Quote

This research isn't about bragging rights to the English or tit-for-tat arguments ”

End Quote Victoria Taylor Senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation

Diet is known to be an important factor. Last year researchers estimated that more than 30,000 lives a year would be saved if everyone in the UK followed dietary guidelines on fat, salt, fibre, and fruit and vegetables.

Now, the same experts - from the Department of Public Health at the University of Oxford - have turned their attention to differences within the UK.

They looked at whether deaths from heart disease, stroke and 10 cancers linked with poor diet could be prevented in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, if everyone switched to the typical English diet.

They say the diet in England is far from perfect - but should be achievable in other UK countries.

Over the three years studied there were nearly 22,000 excess deaths in total. Scotland had 15,719, Wales 3,723 and Northern Ireland 2,329.

Hamburger tax

Lead researcher Dr Peter Scarborough of the Health Promotion Research Group said: "The chief dietary factor that is driving this mortality gap is fruit and vegetables.

The data

  • The researchers looked at deaths from heart disease, stroke and 10 cancers in all four UK countries from 2007 to 2009
  • They estimated calorie intake and 10 components in the diet - including fruit and veg intake, fat, and salt - in all four UK countries
  • The data showed people in Scotland and Northern Ireland ate more saturated fat and salt, and fewer fruit and vegetables, every day than people in England, while differences between England and Wales were smaller
  • Over the three years studied there were nearly 22,000 excess deaths in total. Scotland had 15,719, Wales 3,723 and Northern Ireland 2,329
  • Changing the diet to a typical English one would save about 11,000 of these lives - or just under 4,000 a year - with the biggest impact in Wales and Northern Ireland

"Consumption of fruit and vegetables in Scotland is around 12% lower than in England, and consumption in Northern Ireland is about 20% lower than in England. Consumption levels in Wales are similar.

"Other important factors are salt and saturated fat consumption, which are lower in England than in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland."

The researchers believe one way to tackle the "mortality gap" is to bring in food taxes.

Denmark recently introduced a tax on foods high in saturated fat, while other countries are toying with the idea of taxing fizzy drinks or high-calorie foods.

Dr Scarborough told the BBC that while the study did not consider the effectiveness of policies and interventions, the area should be investigated.

He said: "Junk food taxes and subsidies of fruit and veg could be a very important tool in addressing health inequalities in the UK."

Comments from around the UK

  • Northern Ireland: Spokesperson for the Department of Health, Social Security and Public Safety: "Hopefully this research helps get the message out to the general public that we have to take responsibility for our own health and that our diet has a real impact on the quality and longevity of our lives."
  • Wales: A Welsh government spokesperson said: "Our efforts remain focused on educating people about the importance of a healthy lifestyle, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise and sensible drinking in an effort to reduce obesity and therefore the risk of heart disease, and we have a number of initiatives already in place, such as Change4Life and the MEND and food co-op programmes, aimed at addressing these issues."
  • Scotland: A Scottish government spokesperson said: "Overall, Scotland's cancer mortality rates are decreasing - down almost 12% over the past 10 years - and through our Heart Disease and Stroke Care Action Plan, we are continuing to work to reduce the number of Scots dying from these preventable conditions.

The researchers say they used the English diet as their model not because it is particularly healthy, but because it is regarded as an achievable goal.

Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, said: "This research isn't about bragging rights to the English or tit-for-tat arguments about how healthy our traditional dishes might be.

"This is a useful exercise in comparing influential differences in diet across the UK, namely calorie intake and fruit and veg consumption. However, saying the rest of the UK should follow England's lead to cut heart deaths isn't a foolproof solution; a quarter of English adults are obese and only 30% eat their five-a-day.

"The findings have thrown up some clear inequalities in the four nations and our governments must do everything they can to create environments that help people make healthy choices."

The research is published in the medical journal BMJ Open.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    To compare sport or DIY to delibaretly and consistently indulging in an activity that would make you unhealthy is a stretch. Why do lower income people eat unhealthy food - again not sure this is true. Uneducated, lazy or wilfully greedy people eat until they are ill - like smokers who keep at it until their lungs pack up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    Kuchizuke,I agree with you. It's so ridiculos that the government think that they can tax us in order to prevent us from doing things we shouldn't. Let's think of countries with supposedly healthy diets, Japan, Korea, Spain and most of South South East Asia. Now, as far as I know none of these countires have taxes for junk food. Our mentality is what needs to change, no taxes will ever solve this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 435.

    i'm a scottish student... give me a break. i can't afford food full stop! never mind taxing me more for it. VAT is at 20% already.. are these high flying researchers/governments living in the real world?

    you're just slapping more tax on struggling households and students to make your health statistic spreadsheet look better. its ridiculous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 434.

    I have observed that in food there is too much salt and sugar and fat (all fats)The salt is to make you want more and drink more, sugar is to entice the kids, and the fat.. well I have no idea why that is added to food,so much isnt needed.We make our own bread, and have cut all that down to 1/3 of the recipe and is still great bread, not a dough ball that is heavy and gives you indigestion.Try it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    Many sociological factors drive and shape our dietary intake. Availability of fresh food is hard to come buy (often too expensive and in lower socio-economic areas availability is minimal especially when compared with wealthier suburbs) whereas foods high in energy are cheap and abundant. It is not a matter of punishing 'fat' people, but rather changing what forces are driving our dietary intake

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    Anything that will make the general public take some responsibility for their own health has to be welcomed. I work as a GP and think that the majority of the obese in this country seem all too happy to blame everyone/ everything except themselves for their predicament. This in turn makes helping them to deal with theor resultant health issues all the more difficult and frustrating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    I am bewildered by the governments constant taxing of our private lives, under the façade of actually caring for the public's well being. Like the common pickpocket they divert our intention with the latest fad, whilst snatching the money right out of our pockets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    "31Milky Joe
    there are 4 obese women who work in my office.
    3 of them are english.
    Go figure."
    "Perhaps being around you makes them depressed and they eat as a comfort?"

    Perhaps on average being around The English makes Scotland and Wales depressed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    It's well researched, there's an inverse relation between energy density and energy cost. It's so easy to spew out criticisms on what people eat, but the reality is that it's much more complex. I'm from Canada, a full-time university student, on a very tight budget. Ramen noodles don't provide a balanced diet, but my acct balance loves them. A little garden plot on the side, and we're both happy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    So, yet another useless study into why we should eat healthy. People know all this, it is common sense. No point in singling out England either, the whole of the UK are basically gluttons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    How many lives would Oxford University Dept. of Public Health think could be saved by following dietary interventions that have been proven to be beneficial, such as lowering the glycaemic effect, rather than the speculative changes that are still being advised despite evidence that they have little benefit, such as those based on the false lipid hypothesis?

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    Observational studies may identify useful patterns, but a clinical study is needed to isolate variables.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    No. 415 Taxes don't cover the cost of smoking and drinking to the NHS. If they weren't already legal, there's no way they would be legalised today. One reason stronger action isn't taken to eliminate them from society is that government can't afford to lose all the revenue overnight, but in the long term our economy is losing money as a consequence.
    Saturated fat however does not cause CHD.

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    I know we've all been told that a high fat, high salt, high sugar diet is bad for us, and that it is evidence based. When you route back though, it's bogus. People on low fat diets don't live any longer than people on a 'standard' diet. Eating fat also helps satiate appetite; is it a coincidence that obesity has trebled since Time magazine said we need to lower the cholesterol in our diet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    Wasn’t it nice when the science just helped us make informed choices and the BHF was not a political organisation? These days our views are ignored by the militant medics and “charities”. They prefer to go over our heads to our legislators and demand that we are coerced into obeying their every whim before dying in an orderly approved manner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    Totally agree with you Goldengirl, re folk who are to lazy to cook. As a mum on a frugal budget its definately cheaper to buy basic ingredients - potatoes, carrots etc - & cook totally from scratch. Anyone who thinks otherwise just isn't telling the truth; processed food costs a fortune.

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    Agree we could take a lesson from Japan. Also, the I’m fat!” alarm sounds sooner in Japan than here, so they tend to take action before weight gets out of control. They recognise fat people as fat: people will mention it if you gain weight, and society doesn’t judge that as being rude.

    Oh and I'm overweight and fat and been told so by Japanese colleagues!

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    To take it further, I would say if we eat like the Japanese a lot more lives would be saved.
    I am from Asia and when I moved over to UK I was shocked at the amount of fatty foods people in the UK ate! Also in UK you have unnecessarily large portions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    Totally agree with Editors Pick Lizzie, 404.. that is what we are making at the moment, home made pumpkin soup! YUM!

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    I am amazed. Being a foreigner, I never thought there were such big differences among the diets of the UK nations.


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