MRC study shows that Mediterranean diet could prevent 19,000 deaths a year in UK
9 Nov 2017
This case study forms part of our Investing for Impact report, looking at how MRC- funded research delivers impact. More can be found in the Investing for Impact section of our website.
In 2016, MRC-funded scientists studying the UK’s eating habits showed that thousands of deaths from heart disease and stroke could be prevented if everybody ate a Mediterranean diet. The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil and fruits and vegetables, have had a popular following for many years, but the study is the first to look at it in the real world of the UK thanks to the EPIC-Norfolk cohort group.
The Mediterranean diet is the traditional diet in Mediterranean regions such as Greece and Southern Italy. The diet includes a lot of fruit and vegetables, olive oil, nuts, legumes, some fish and dairy, and little red and processed meat. Since its recognition, following the Mediterranean diet has been associated with a lower incidence of non-communicable health conditions, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases as well as a longer lifespan. However, evidence regarding the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet in non-Mediterranean regions is less consistent. In addition, the population impact of a cardiovascular benefit from following the Mediterranean diet at the general population level was unknown.
To tackle these gaps in our knowledge, Professor Kay-Tee Khaw at the University of Cambridge and Professor Nick Wareham at the MRC Epidemiology Unit analysed data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort in Norfolk (EPIC-Norfolk). Gathering data about eating habits among nearly 24,000 people in Norfolk over an average of 12 to 17 years, the research team published their results in 2016. This study showed 12.5 percent of heart attack and stroke deaths that occurred may have been prevented with alterations in diet. In the context of the UK as a whole, that would be 19,000 deaths averted out of the 155,000 that occur as a result of heart disease each year.
The UK NICE guidelines recommend a Mediterranean based diet for people already diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, to prevent further cardiovascular episodes such as heart attack and stroke. However, until now the association of the Mediterranean diet with preventing the disease occurring in the first instance has not been examined in the UK. This important study by Professor Khaw and the EPIC-Norfolk team highlights that a Mediterranean diet can indeed help prevent heart disease.
With the help of more than 30,000 people living in Norfolk, the EPIC-Norfolk cohort provides data-based evidence for health policies to prevent or delay disease onset and maintain health and independence in older people. EPIC-Norfolk researchers such as Professor Khaw do this by trying to understand the factors that are most often present when people stay healthy and also factors more likely to be present should they develop a particular health condition or disease. The cohort is made up of men and women who were aged between 40 and 79 when they joined the study and who lived in Norwich and the surrounding towns and rural areas. They have been contributing information about their diet, lifestyle and health through questionnaires and health checks over two decades, and represent an invaluable source of diet and lifestyle information. EPIC-Norfolk is funded by the MRC, Cancer Research UK, NIHR, and the Wellcome Trust.