New OHE research shows that the NHS could save an estimated £6.7 billion a year if everyone in England adhered to a plant-based diet. So, should we be recommending Veganuary as the new national norm?
In recent years, vegan and other plant-based diets have grown in popularity. At the same time, the research conversation has shifted from a discussion of plant-based diets as merely a matter of dietary preference to a significant public health consideration. Supported by a grant from the Vegan Society, we have conducted a new analysis to explore this topic, attempting to understand the possible impact of a 100% adoption of a vegan diet in England, with a specific focus on the implications for the NHS.
We employed a model-based analysis, integrating numerous epidemiological and health inputs. Specifically, we combined information on prevalence, the relative risk of disease associated with a vegan diet, health care costs, and health state utility values for specific diseases. By conducting a targeted literature review, we identified relevant evidence relating to cancer, coronary heart disease, cataracts, diverticular disease, bone fractures, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
One of the most striking findings of our analysis is the estimated total healthcare cost savings achieved through lower incidence of some of the major diseases that currently affect people in the UK and other Western societies. With a complete shift to a plant-based diet in England, the study suggests a possible annual saving for the NHS of approximately £6.7 billion across all considered diseases. On top of this, the population could benefit from more than 2 million fewer cases of disease, corresponding to an additional 172,735 quality-adjusted life years (QALYs). Valuing QALYs in line with the UK’s Department for Health and Social Care and adding these figures together, we arrive at a total net benefit to the NHS of around £18.8 billion per year.
Table 1 Base case analysis (100% uptake)
The economic implications of these findings are profound. According to the study, the majority of the potential savings would come from avoiding almost 1.3 million cases of type 2 diabetes. This is particularly significant given the substantial financial and resource strain diabetes places on the NHS. Adopting a plant-based diet could serve as a preventive measure, reducing the burden of chronic diseases that consume a significant portion of healthcare resources.
Sceptical readers will wonder how confident we can be about these findings. The truth is that more data are required; there is limited direct evidence available for how adopting a vegan diet impacts health outcomes and health care service use. Nevertheless, we can be confident about a few things. Firstly, for the diseases we included, there is strong evidence from meta-analyses that vegan diets are associated with reduced risk of disease and other improvements in health. Secondly, there is little doubt that reductions in the prevalence of the major causes of disease burden in England would ease pressure on health services. Finally, it should come as no surprise that such a dramatic shift in the population’s health behaviours could result in transformative changes.
From a policy perspective, these findings are novel and important. They underscore the need for policymakers to consider the potential health benefits and cost savings associated with encouraging plant-based diets. Such measures could improve public health and relieve economic pressure on the healthcare system.
We call for future research to identify the causal effects of plant-based diet adoption on health outcomes and healthcare resource use across different populations. This is a crucial step in understanding the broader implications of dietary choices and in formulating effective health policies. One important development that could support this objective would be to include information about the adoption of plant-based diets in ongoing nationwide cross-sectional and longitudinal studies.
Read the full paper at medRxiv, and explore the results and generate estimates using your own inputs with our interactive web app.
Read more about our work with the Vegan Society here.
Henderson, N. and Sampson, C., 2023. The impact of higher uptake of plant-based diets in England: model-based estimates of health care resource use and health-related quality of life. medRxiv 2023.12.26.23300536. DOI: 10.1101/2023.12.26.23300536.
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