Food & drink: Do you really want to be healthy? Then eat Albanian

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The Independent Online
Albania is the poorest country in Europe, yet you are likely to live longer there than in some richer nations. Researchers say that is probably due to the type of food they eat. Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, looks at the `Albanian paradox'.

If you are born in Albania and survive until the age of 15, you are likely to live as long as someone in the United Kingdom despite the fact that the country is so much poorer and with limited access to health services.

The reason for the low adult mortality is probably the Albanian diet, which is high in fruit, vegetables and olive oil and low in animal fats. The researchers who carried out a survey into death rates said that it added to mounting evidence linking the so-called "Mediterranean diet" - favoured in countries such as Greece and Italy - with low rates of heart disease. Low consumption of meat and milk products has repeatedly been shown to provide protection against a range of chronic diseases, especially the heart problems that plague rich nations.

Albania was previously most famous for extreme poverty and extreme devotion to Norman Wisdom films (during the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Wisdom's films were among the very few Western productions allowed, and he is now a national hero). But, from research just published in the Lancet medical journal, it now appears that the country has much to teach its wealthier neighbours about health.

Albanian women live to an average of 74.2 years and men to 67.8 years, about the same as Britons, Arjan Gjonca of the London School of Economics found in the first verified mortality data from the former Communist nation. The rate of heart disease was 41 per 100,000 in Albania - half that of Britain but similar to that of Italy.

Mortality was lowest in the south-west, where most of the olives, fruits and vegetables are grown and consumed. Death rates in the north-east were almost double those of the south-west. "In the hilly north-east, much of the food and fats is of animal origin. By contrast, the diet in the south-west is typically Mediterranean, with high intakes of olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables," Mr Gjonca wrote in the Lancet. "No other factor offers more plausible explanation for the regional mortality pattern."

In Hungary and Poland, where the diet includes large quantities of meat and animal fats, death rates from cardiovascular and coronary disease are two to three times as high as those in Albania and life expectancy is lower. Adult mortality in Portugal is also higher than in Albania. Albania's alcohol consumption was reported to be the lowest in Europe, the people were not heavy smokers and most undertook some physical activity. Road deaths were low because of few cars.

In contrast to the low adult mortality rate, the infant death rate was among the highest in Europe at 41.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990, but the study said that this was to be expected because of widespread deprivation and poor medical services.

"The case of Albania is relevant for primary prevention elsewhere," wrote Mr Gjonca. "The high adult life expectancy despite economic misery and modest health services provides a prospect of an effective and palatable preventive policy."

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