Eating a piece of fruit each day significantly lowers the risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke – an effect size as large as taking a statin, Oxford University has found.
In the largest study of its kind, researchers looked at the dietary habits of half a million middle-aged people in China to find out if what they ate was linked to heart health.
The population was chosen because a large number of Chinese people do not eat fresh fruit at all, so scientists were able to tease apart the impact more easily than in western countries.
It was found that even eating just one piece of fruit each day (3.5oz) lowered the risk of a heart attack or stroke by one third over the seven year study period, compared with people who never or rarely ate fruit.
Statins also lower the chance of a heart attack by one third, but many people complain of side effects associated with the drug, such as muscle pains and fatigue.
Although the Oxford researchers do not recommend swapping statins for fruit, they say increasing fruit in the diet may provide an extra boost for people at risk of heart problems and potentially save thousands of lives each year.
Zhengming Chen, Professor of Epidemiology at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, Oxford University, said: “The potential impact is huge. In China if the current rate of consumption was to increase to a piece of fruit everyday around half a million deaths could be avoided each year, and maybe thousands in Britain.
“This was the largest study ever carried out and it is very robust, but the challenge is that it is an observational study so there may be something that people who eat fruit do which protects them, although we have tried to control for that.
“There are a lot of potential mechanisms for why fruit may improve cardiovascular health. It is known that fresh fruit lower blood pressure so that is something that is really good. Lots of fibre is good for certain diseases, and it contains anti-oxidants.
“It may be that fresh fruit changes the gut bacteria in a way that does not work with processed fruit. The take home message is that fresh fruit is very good for you and it should be encouraged to potentially reduce mortality.”
Around 17.5 million people are currently eligible for statins in Britain meaning that most men over 60 and women over 65 are offered the drug by GPs.
But many stop taking the pills within a year because of muscle pain, weakness and fatigue, leaving them at risk of suffering heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) estimates that 50,000 deaths a year could be prevented if everyone who was eligible for statins was taking the drugs, which equates to around one third of deaths.
Researchers from Oxford and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences studied 500,000 adults from 10 urban and rural localities across China, tracking health for 7 years through death records and electronic hospital records of illness.
After allowing for factors such as education and non-smoking, a 100g portion of fruit (one portion) per day was associated with about one-third less cardiovascular mortality, the authors reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Although more people consume fruit in western countries, a large amount is processed in fruit juices, so the study suggests that it is better to eat fresh fruit
A separate study found that a common drug which is used to make medication dissolve quickly in the body also melts away cholesterol in clogged arteries, potentially ending the need for statins.
Cyclodextrin, which is already clinically approved and safe in humans, was found to dissolve cholesterol crystals and reduced plaques in mice even when the animals continued to eat a high-fat diet.
It is thought that the drug increases activity in the liver which triggers the release of immune cells which clear out cholesterol