A diet rich in fruit and vegetables is a cornerstone of every health education campaign but the dramatic reductions in disease and mortality revealed in the study surprised researchers.
Scientists recorded the eating habits and health of almost 11,000 people over 17 years, and found that there was 32 per cent fewer deaths from strokes and 24 per cent fewer deaths from heart attacks in people who ate fresh fruit every day.
Overall, the fall in deaths from all causes was 21 per cent in the fruit- eating group compared to those whose diet did not incorporate as much fresh fruit. Daily consumption of raw salad was also found to protect against heart disease.
Dr Tim Key of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Epidemiology Unit in Oxford, which carried out the study, said yesterday: "This study shows that if you eat fresh fruit daily, the chances of dying from a heart attack or stroke are significantly reduced. It's a simple message which supports the old saying `an apple a day.' The results [also] suggest that eating fresh fruit daily may protect against cancers." A study known as EPIC, involving 21,000 health-conscious people from nine European countries, is at present underway to investigate this.
Evidence is accumulating for the role of Vitamins A, C, and E and various minerals in raw food, in limiting damage to genetic material and tissues and promoting healing. The ACE vitamins, as they are known, are powerful scavengers of free radicals, harmful chemicals generated in the body and present in the environment.
The study, published in tomorrow's issue of the British Medical Journal, was set up in the early 1970s to establish whether high-fibre foods or a vegetarian diet would lead to fewer deaths from heart attacks. The evidence to support this hypothesis was weak while the fresh fruit association was highly significant.
In the same issue of the BMJ, Dr Key reports that meat-eaters are more likely to be obese than people who eat a meat-free diet. The finding comes from the EPIC study: more than 9 per cent of women meat-eaters and 6 per cent of men were defined as clinically obese. Although the figures were well below the national averages (16 per cent for women and 13 per cent for men) they are greater than the targets set by the Government in Health of the Nation, for 8 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men obese by 2005. In contrast, the non-meat eaters were well within the targets.