It is no secret that too much sugar and saturated fat are not good for you, but which food combinations put you at the greatest risk of heart disease and death in middle age?
The answer, from a new study by the University of Oxford, is likely to disappoint many people.
The researchers found that diets with a lot of chocolate and sweets, butter, table sugar, soft drinks and fruit juices – and low in fresh fruits and vegetables – are the worst. Also risky, though less so, are diets rich in sugary drinks, chocolate and sweets, table sugar and preserves – even when those diets were low in foods like butter and cheese, which are rich in saturated fat.
“There is a lot of research and evidence on isolated nutrients – the problem with that is that people don’t eat nutrients, we eat food, food combinations,” said senior author Carmen Piernas, a research professor in primary health sciences. “So telling people that they need to cut down on sugar is very confusing and may not be the right message.”
Therefore, his team decided to examine the results of diet and health, not in terms of specific nutrients to be limited – but of specific foods.
They used the UK Biobank, a database of almost 117,000 UK adults who were recruited between 2006 and 2010 when they were between 37 and 73 years old.
Participants reported their diets between two and five times. The researchers identified the food and nutrient groups. Hospital records and death records were used to calculate the rates of heart disease and death.
Participants were grouped according to the food they ate. People whose diets were heavy on chocolate, sweets, butter and white bread were 40% more at risk of heart disease and 37% more at risk of premature death, Piernas said.
Those in the sugary drinks group had a 14% higher risk of heart disease and an 11% higher risk of death, although Piernas said the links were less clear than in the other group. The study found only associations, rather than a cause and effect link.