Feeling healthy? Cutting calories could lead to more benefits

Even if you consider yourself healthy, you could still dramatically benefit from mild reductions in your calorie intake, a new study suggests.

The landmark multi-year research, published in The Lancet, showed reducing calorie intake by about 12 per cent drastically lowered multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Even people who are largely healthy could benefit dramatically from mild reductions in their calorie intake, according to a new study.Credit: Shutterstock

Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, is one of the largest causes of death in the Western world. It accounts for almost 30 per cent of all deaths in Australia and affects one in six adults.

“This study of ours is the first study to show that even in healthy, young and non-obese individuals, if you have a mild reduction in calorie intake … you drastically reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease,” lead author Luigi Fontana from the University of Sydney said.

There is no drug with similar effects across a range of cardiovascular risk factors, he said.

Patients with no elevated risk factors for cardiovascular disease (which include high bad cholesterol, insulin resistance and high blood pressure) have only a five per cent risk of developing the disease. But previous studies have shown if a patient has “one abnormal risk factor, it’s 50 per cent, and if it’s two or more, its 75 per cent”, Professor Fontana said.

With a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, Professor Fontana, who was involved in the foundational research which gave rise to the "5:2 diet", said people were likely to live longer.

“You gain years of life and most importantly healthy years of life."

The 216 participants in the study, which was conducted in the US, were aged 21 to 50, and healthy, lean or slightly overweight.

They were given special diet plans in order to encourage them to stick to the calorie reduction regime and attended group and individual sessions over a two-year period.

Although they were attempting to reduce their calorie intake by 25 per cent, in reality, the participants managed to reduce their calorie intake by 11.9 per cent.

But Professor Fontana said the relatively mild nature of the diet meant that ordinary people, with education and dedication, could make changes in their own lives.

People can cut their calorific intake by substituting junk food with healthy unrefined food, such as vegetables.

“To lose 10 per cent of your calorific intake is not difficult. You just have to substitute junk food with healthy unrefined food, lots of vegetables, fibre rich food, fish,” he said.

Professor Fontana said the research had significant public health implications, demonstrating governments should be spending money on education and preventative care, which would save vastly more money on later-stage interventions on people who are already sick.

He said the current model of health care was akin to refusing to replace a broken car part for so long that the whole engine becomes damaged.

“Everybody knows that this model is unsustainable. We can’t afford to have all these sick people taking drugs, having surgery,” Professor Fontana said. “The transition [to preventative care] is going to come.”

Professor Clare Collins, accredited practicing dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, said the study was "not that different" from what the association would recommend and demonstrated the efficacy of making access to dietary advice a priority for public health.

"People typically don't get personalised access to nutrition advice, but when you give them access to good quality resources, access to group and individual advice, show them what a healthy meal looks like … their chronic disease risk dramatically improves," she said.

She agreed the calorie reduction the group achieved on average was one that people could manage without eating less, but just by changing the types of foods they ate, adding this is often an easier transition.

A Heart Foundation spokesperson said they would not recommend calorie reduction for people in a healthy weight range without other known risk factors of cardiovascular disease.

"We know very little about how a reduction in calorie intake affects people who are not overweight," they said.

"Calorie reduction is an emerging area but there is insufficient evidence to support it as a long term viable option for weight management."

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