Forget calorie counting and start eating healthily, say UK healthcare leaders

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Following a simple Mediterranean-style diet is more effective than counting calories, say leading UK doctors.
Following a simple Mediterranean-style diet is more effective than counting calories, say leading UK doctors.

Related tags Nutrition

Following a Mediterranean style-diet may be better at cutting obesity rates than following diets that involve continually counting calories, say researchers in the UK.

The risk of heart attack and stroke can be quickly reduced by following the Mediterranean diet, while following a diet that includes fruit, vegetables, nuts and olive oil could also better than low-fat diets for sustained weight loss, said the research team writing in Postgraduate Medical Journal​ (PMJ).

Led by Dr Aseem Malhotra, the team of senior UK academics and NHS (National Health Service) leaders suggest that a focus on food intake is important, but warn that crash dieting could be harmful to health. Official NHS advice is to monitor calorie intake to maintain a healthy weight.

Speaking to the BBC Breakfast show in the UK today, Malhotra said that there is ‘very good scientific evidence’ to now show that reducing refined carbohydrates, and particularly cutting out sugar from the diet, while increasing intakes of foods that are higher in ‘good fats’ such as oily fish, olive oil, and nuts is better for sustained weight loss and other health indicators.

“We have to look at the scientific evidence, and I think the important concept first of all, that we need to think about is that all calories are not the same, and they are not metabolised in the same way by the body,”​ he said.

The report also criticises the nutrition and weight-loss industry for focusing on calorie restriction rather than ‘good nutrition.’ Indeed, Malhotra warned that consumers should ‘be very wary’ of foods that are marketed as low fat or healthy, “because often the low fat foods are full of sugar.”

“What’s happened is the food industry have exploited this low fat message, which has been unhelpful unfortunately, and people are now consuming much more sugar.”

"What's more responsible is that we tell people to concentrate on eating nutritious foods,”​ said Malhotra - who advocated that people focus on buying whole foods and work to reduce their intake of fast foods and sugars.

Better than statins?

Writing in PMJ​, the UK-based team also make the case that the Mediterranean diet may be more effective than cholesterol-lowering statin medication, citing research that suggests it quickly reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes and is almost three times as effective at reducing deaths as taking statins.

Indeed, Malhotra, said the scientific evidence is overwhelming, and argued that the NHS is in a “key position”​ to set a national example by providing healthy food in hospitals and by ensuring doctors and nurses understand the evidence.

"We know the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is higher in fat, proven from randomised controlled trials, reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke even within months of implementation," ​he said.

Healthcare to lead the way?

"Our hospitals and surgeries are the frontline for delivering health, it's nothing more than common sense then that we should be leading by example,”​ added study co-author Professor  Terence Stephenson​, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

He suggested that the UK health service can have a powerful influence over the health of the nation, both for good and bad.

"We wouldn't dream of letting people drink alcohol or smoke in any healthcare environment, so I find it incomprehensible that we facilitate and sometimes actively promote food and drink that in some ways cause as many problems. And although some positive steps have been taken on the food given to patients in hospital, their visitors and staff also deserve better,"​ he said.

Source: Postgraduate Medical Journal
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1136/postgradmedj-2014-133103
Healthy eating: an NHS priority A sure way to improve health outcomes for NHS staff and the public”
Authors: ​Aseem Malhotra, Mahiben Maruthappu, Terence Stephenson

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