May 29, 2006

Poor Diet as Bad as Smoking for Health

By Anna Mudeva

AMSTERDAM -- Insufficient consumption of fish, fruit and vegetables is as bad for human health as smoking, a Dutch report said on Monday.

The study, which the European Food Safety Authority says it will use when analyzing food and diet risks, concludes that most cases of serious illness and death in the Netherlands is caused by poor diet.

"Taking into account not just deaths but also years spent living with serious disability, unhealthy dietary habits cause as much health loss as does smoking," said the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).

"Unhealthy diet composition currently reduces the average life expectancy of 40-year-old Dutch by 1.2 years, while obesity claims 0.8 years."

Some 75 percent of the Netherlands' 16 million people eat fruit and vegetables below the recommended level, said the report, which is a result of an extensive research into the effects of current food trends in the country.

Each year in the Netherlands, poor diet causes about 13,000 deaths due to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, while obesity claims 7,000 lives by causing heart disease and cancer, it said.

By comparison, foodborne infections cause between 20 and 200 deaths each year.

RIVM researchers recommended that governments around the world should start encouraging a healthy diet to improve public health, rather than trying to improve food safety.

The Dutch researchers also say that about 25 percent of deaths and serious illness caused by overweight and obesity would be avoided if all adults would shed 3 kgs.

"In particular, attempts at reducing saturated and trans fatty acid uptake and increasing fish, fruit and vegetables consumption could save many lives," the report said.

Saturated and trans fatty acids -- which come from animal fats, tropical oils such as coconut and palm oils as wells as processed vegetable oils -- raise the levels of cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.

The head of the European Food Safety Authority, Herman Koeter, who received a copy of the report, said in the RIVM statement that it would be a leading document in Europe when making risk analysis of food and diets.

Meat consumption in the Netherlands, one of the world's biggest meat producers and exporters, is about 50 percent higher than the recommended levels and stands at about 83-85 kg per capita a year, researchers say.