Photo of a burger and curly fries
People who eat food with lots of salt/trans-fats have a much higher risk of heart disease [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Should we make unhealthy lifestyles illegal?

28 July, 2011

How far should we go to keep people healthy – and keep costs down for the NHS?

According to researchers at the University of Birmingham’s School of Health and Population Sciences, it may be time to use the law.

They say that introduction of legislation that restricts unhealthy food, for example by reducing salt content and eliminating industrial trans fats, would prevent thousands of cases of heart disease in England and Wales and save the NHS millions of pounds.

Heart disease and stroke cause over 150,000 deaths every year in the UK and yet over 80% of premature heart disease is avoidable, say the authors.

They add that established research has already indicated that individuals who consume too much salt and eat food which is high in industrial trans fats – chemically altered vegetable oils found in thousands of processed foods from sweets and biscuits to ready meals – have a higher risk of developing heart disease.

According Dr Pelham Barton, who led the research, a national programme reducing the risk of heart disease by 1% would prevent approximately 25,000 heart disease cases and save about £30m a year; reducing cholesterol or blood pressure levels by 5% (as already achieved in some other countries) would result in annual savings of approximately £80m or £100m; introducing legislation or other measures to reduce dietary salt intake by 3 grams a day or industrial trans fatty acid intake by approximately 0.7% would save about £40m or £230m a year.

Barton goes so far as to suggest these figures are conservative – the real benefits could be much greater.  He also believes that the interventions would help reduce health inequalities as recent reports stated that consumption of trans fats is very high in some disadvantaged groups (over 6% of daily energy).