English diet 'could save thousands'
The Scottish have long been rumoured to be fond of the odd deep-fried Mars bar. Now research claims that poor diets north of the border - as well as west of it and over the Irish Sea - are claiming thousands of lives a year.
The study, undertaken by academics at Oxford University “England”, estimates that 3,700 deaths from heart disease, strokes and cancer, could be prevented annually if everyone ate as healthily as the English.
Peter Scarborough, of the university's department of public health, said national surveys showed people south of the border tended to eat better.
For fear of upsetting fiery Celtic sensibilities, Scarborough emphasised: "We are not trying to be inflammatory at all".
Rather, there was an important matter of public health at hand.
"It has been a question for years as to why mortality rates are higher in other parts of the UK, particularly Scotland, than they are in England," he explained.
Scarborough, an epidemiologist, and colleagues calculated that if death rates from heart disease, stroke and cancer were as low in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales as they were in England, 7,000 fewer people would die a year.
The research, published today (Thursday) in the journal BMJ Open, therefore suggests that just over half the difference (53 per cent) is due to diet alone. Scotland has the worst diet, he said, followed by Northern Ireland, Wales and England.
While the deep-fried Mars bars might be the stuff of Glaswegian legend - and something rarely eaten by most Scots in practice - he said there were real dietary differences that divided the two principal nations.
"The Scottish diet is higher in saturated fat and salt and lower in fruit and vegetables," he said.
The study, sponsored by the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group, analysed diets using data from four years worth of reports from the Family Food Survey, published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
It found that while the English eat just under 2,300 calories a day, elsewhere in the UK the intake is about 100 calories higher.
Although that does not sound like a lot - it is the equivalent a glass of semi-skimmed milk - over time those calories can mount up, leading to higher obesity levels unless countered by more exercise.
But Scarborough said: "It's not the amount of food that most important in these health differences, it's the type."
He also stressed that the English diet itself was not a paragon of good eating, unlike the much vaunted Continental alternative, the Mediterranean diet, which is much higher in fruit and vegetables and unsaturated fats.
"We are not holding up the English diet as perfect - it's certainly nothing like the Mediterranean diet - but clearly it is an achievable diet," he said.
Most of the differences in death rates between Wales and England and Northern Ireland and England can be explained by diet - according to the Oxford analysis, 81 per cent in both cases.
Interestingly, the figure is only 40 per cent for Scotland. This could be because a higher proportion of people smoke and drink heavily in Scotland.
However, even when other factors are taken into account - notably physical activity and stress levels - the wide gap between England and Scotland cannot be entirely accounted for.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "Earlier this year we set out actions being taken to make it easier for everyone to make healthy choices, including eating more fruit and vegetables, eating less salt, fat and added sugar, and becoming more active.
“We have introduced a range of measures to improve diet and are spending over £7.5m in the next three years on projects to encourage healthy eating."
Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian 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 fool proof solution; a quarter of English adults are obese and only 30 per cent 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.”