According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, the UK could cut its healthcare and societal costs – such as absenteeism from work – by €5.87bn (£5.21bn) if 10% of the population would emphasise plant-based foods in their diets over the next 20 years.
The study examined the health and economic consequences of two plant-based eating patterns: a diet with a daily proportion of soya foods and a Mediterranean-style diet. The Ghent University researchers concluded savings would rise as high as €8.49bn (£7.54bn) if 10% of the UK population incorporated soya products into their daily diets.
“Our research demonstrates that increasing plant-based eating is cost-effective, reduces economic costs, such as hospital admissions and doctors’ bills, as well as increasing the number of healthy years people live, and enabling them to continue having an active life,” said Lieven Annemans, professor of health economics at Ghent University, and the lead author of the paper.
The researchers noted that plant-based earing does not have to exclude all animal products. Different approaches can range from veganism and vegetarianism to a Mediterranean diet that is high in plant-based foods such as wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.
This emphasis is already reflected in the UK government’s Eat Well guidance. But Annemans said the link to economic consequences could help develop new healthy eating messaging. “Our study has the potential to contribute to the way healthy eating is promoted,” he added.
Live better, longer
The researchers carried out what they described as an “extensive review” of the scientific literature and concluded that both plant-based and soya eating patterns reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and certain cancers. Diets containing soya demonstrated the most favourable health effects from the two evaluated plant-based food patterns.
The researchers calculated the impact of these plant-based food patterns on ‘quality adjusted life years’ (QALYs), which estimate the number of expected years of good health. To calculate disease costs, a societal perspective was taken, including direct and indirect costs.
Direct costs are those directly associated with the disease or related conditions including costs related to diagnosis and treatment. Indirect costs include employment related elements such as absenteeism and productivity loss due to sickness.
For the UK, a diet containing soya is estimated to yield 159 QALYs and 100 QALYs per 1,000 women and men, respectively. Similarly, adherence to a plant-based Mediterranean-type diet also results in living longer in good health and cost-savings to society.
Supporting the findings of the study, Professor Ian Rowland, professor in nutrition from Reading University, stressed that eating more plants can improve nutrition and overall health. “More plant-based eating helps against a variety of diseases which many people are currently confronted with. In addition to the personal health benefits, it can also help reduce society’s healthcare costs,” he noted.
This latest study follows a report published by the Sustainable Food Trust in November – The Hidden Cost Of UK Food – which found that poor diets add 41c (37p) of healthcare costs to every €1.13 (£1) spent on food.
Published online ahead of print: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2017.11.028
The potential health and economic effects of plant-based food patterns in Belgium and the United Kingdom
Authors: Lieven Annemans, Janne Schepers