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One large chicken breast a day and mostly plant-based diet could prevent 26million premature deaths

Encouraging people to eat less meat and more fruit and veg may prevent 26million premature deaths every year, scientists say. 

Edinburgh University researchers want people to eat 350 calories of meat, dairy and fish every day — the equivalent of around one large chicken breast.

They estimate people in G20 countries eat about 620 calories of animal products on average, roughly the same as two large beef burger patties.

People should also try to consume 720 calories of fruit and vegetables, the experts claimed. For example, an apple, banana and two peppers have around 100 calories each.

The shake-up of eating habits would reduce deaths related to obesity, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, they say.

Experts behind the proposal — who also recycle the disputed argument that cutting back on meat is good for the environment — claim policymakers should use Covid recovery plans to push people to eat healthier.

Researchers at Edinburgh University, who modelled post-pandemic scenarios, found that a shift to eating more fruit and vegetables and less meat could save up to 26million lives per year. The shake-up of eating habits would slash deaths related to poor diets and obesity — such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer — as well as Covid deaths


Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count

• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain

• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on

• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options

• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day

• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide  

Aimen Sattar, one of the researchers involved in the study, said the analysis shows the ‘dramatic benefit’ of improving diets. 

A poor diet — defined as eating too much salt and not enough whole grains, fruit, vegetables, omega-3, nuts and seeds — is thought to cause 11million deaths globally per year from illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and colorectal cancer. 

Cutting meat consumption has also been linked to staving off an early death. 

The Edinburgh academics modelled four different Covid recovery scenarios, which looked at the impact of including policies designed to promote healthier diets.

The findings, published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health, claim to show a shift towards a more plant-based diet could prevent 2,583 premature deaths per million people by 2060.

With the world’s population set to exceed 10billion by that year, this would mean up to 26million fewer deaths in 2060 alone.

Under this strategy, people consumed 2,400 calories a day — with 820 coming from whole grain foods such as wheat and corn.

Another 720 came from fruit and veg, with 350 from animal products such as beef, chicken and eggs. 

The rest came from oils and pulses, sugar and starchy roots, such as potatoes. 

By comparison, recovery plans focusing solely on restoring economic activity to pre-pandemic levels could lead to an extra 780 deaths per million people by 2060 — the equivalent of nearly 8million each year.

This model assumed people roughly stuck to historic diets, consisting of 2,600 calories a day, largely from whole grain products (900), animal products (620) and oil and pulses (492). 

The calculations also showed that the transition to healthier diets also reduced the use of nitrogen fertiliser by 40million tonnes and water for fields by 400 square kilometres.

This is because eating less meat means less land is used for farming and animal feed, while low-meat diets also reduces the loss of biodiversity and natural land, the researchers claimed.

Mr Sattar, a PhD student involved in the research, said: ‘The Covid recovery stimulus packages present an opportunity to reduce the impact of the food system on some of the most urgent global challenges.’ 

As a guide, the NHS says an average man needs 2,500 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight. For an average woman, that figure is around 2,000 a day.