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Eating more fish could be the key to preventing cancer and diabetes, says new study

Posted: 12 April 2024 | | No comments yet

According to research commissioned by Seafish, increasing the consumption of fish across England has the potential to significantly reduce the number of cases of diseases such as cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Eating more fish could be the key to preventing cancer and diabetes, says new study

If the public were to eat one more portion of fish per week than current levels, it could save the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) up to £600 million every year, a study in England has shown. 

The change in behaviour, which could prevent thousands of cases of cancer and type 2 diabetes, could also save businesses up to £360 million per annum, due to the better health of their workers and reduced amount of sick leave.

NHS guidelines recommend that ‘a healthy, balanced diet should include at least two portions of fish a week, including one of oil rich fish’ (NHS, 2019). However, the current estimate for seafood consumption across England is half the recommended level at just over one portion a week and consumption is on the decline (Defra, 2021).

This preliminary research was commissioned by Seafish, the public body supporting the UK seafood sector to thrive, and carried out by Risk & Policy Analysts (RPA) and Health Economics Consulting (HEC) at the University of East Anglia (UEA). They explored how the health benefits of eating fish might translate to wider positive impacts for the economy. 

Fish is a leaner and often less processed source of protein compared to other protein options, with lower fat content. Oily fish also contains long chain omega-3 fatty acids that support good heart health. Eating more fish and shellfish as part of a balanced diet could help individuals to lose weight, reduce obesity, lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

The research reveals that increasing the amount of seafood consumed by the English population by just one extra portion a week could prevent up to 4,900 cases of type 2 diabetes and 18,000 cases of all types of cancer.

At an individual level, increasing your weekly fish and shellfish consumption from one to two portions could result in:

  • 15% reduced risk in developing type 2 diabetes
  • 30% to 42% reduced risk in developing colorectal cancer
  • 40% reduced risk in developing lung cancer
  • 42% to 44% reduced risk in developing ovarian cancer for women.

The findings revealed that the largest benefits would accrue in the North East of the country, where seafood consumption is at its lowest compared to the rest of England. Younger groups are also consuming less seafood per week on average compared to the over 55s, so 22% of all preventable disease cases avoided would be in the 25 to 34 years of age category.

In reducing these preventable cases by increasing seafood consumption, the wider economic benefits would equate to £3.5 billion per year in England. The savings to the NHS specifically would be between £270 million to £600 million a year. This equates to between £31,000 to £35,000 per patient over each patient’s lifetime.

The cost to the individual to unlock these benefits could be as little as £1.65 per person per week, on average. For businesses, the greater health of their workers and less time away on sick leave would equate to £160 million to £360 million.

Marcus Coleman, CEO at Seafish, said: “Lifestyle and diet related diseases have put an already over-stretched NHS under mounting pressure. A healthy diet should be the first port of call for tackling preventable diseases, and the health benefits of eating more seafood are clear to see. Increasing the quantity of fish and shellfish in our diets could save thousands of lives a year, as well providing a much-needed boost to the UK economy during a time of economic uncertainty.

“Adding more seafood to our diets is affordable, even during a time that household budgets are being stretched due to the cost-of-living crisis. There are many sustainable options, too. A 120g tin of sardines can cost as little as 47p and are rich in Omega 3 that is crucial for good heart health. Pollock, a popular white fish, has an average price of £6.20 per kg, compared to £8.33 per kg for beef and £6.95 per kg for pork,” he added.

Teresa Fenn, Director of the RPA team that led the study, said: “This research asks the question whether there would be significant socio-economic benefits for the English population if there was an increased consumption of fish. The answer is a clear yes. The reduced risk of developing both type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer has a huge ripple effect, from improved quality of life for individuals, all the way to influencing government funding. Prevention of illness through diet is an accessible and realistic way to tackle these conditions.”