New study finds unhealthy diet kills more people globally than tobacco 

New study finds unhealthy diet kills more people globally than tobacco 

A large study published in the journal Lancet, spanning from 1990 to 2017 tracking dietary trends in 195 countries, has found that poor eating habits is associated with 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.  This amounts to 11 million deaths each year making unhealthy diets responsible for more deaths than tobacco and high blood pressure. Out of the 195 countries studies, Israel had the lowest rate of diet-related deaths and Uzbekistan had the most.  The U.S. ranked 43rd out of the 195 countries of deaths that were diet-related.

An unhealthy diet is defined as someone who is consuming a high intake of unhealthy foods such as red meat, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages.  It also includes individuals who have a low intake of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and seeds.

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For the study, researchers looked at 15 dietary elements which included diets low in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, milk, fiber, calcium, seafood omega-3 fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats, and diets high in red meat, processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fatty acids, and sodium.

What was found from the study was that an estimated 11 million deaths were attributable to unhealthy diets in 2017.  The causes of these deaths included 10 million deaths from heart disease, 913,000 deaths from obesity-related cancers, and nearly 339,000 deaths from type 2 diabetes.  Specifically found was that diets high in sodium, low in whole grains, and low in fruit together accounted for more than half of all diet-related deaths around the world. The striking takeaway from the study was that more deaths were associated with not eating enough healthy foods rather than eating too many unhealthy foods.

Typically, people are encouraged to focus more on reducing a high intake of sodium, sugar, and fats.  But this study has found the focus should instead be more on encouraging a higher intake of healthy foods. One example demonstrated this: one of the leading dietary risk factors in several countries was not eating enough whole grains, including the U.S.  In Asian countries, high sodium intakes was a leading risk factor;  in sub-Saharan Africa, a low intake of fruit was considered a dietary risk factor while in Mexico,  a low-intake of nuts and seeds led to increases in deaths related to poor diet.

Like all research studies, this study does have several important limitations.  For instance, there are gaps in the data available for intake of key foods and nutrients around the world, which increase the statistical uncertainty of these estimates. Even so, people in almost every corner of the world could benefit from choosing healthier foods and reducing intake of unhealthy foods.

These findings will likely have major health implications.  What is being discussed and suggested is to encourage the public to consume more healthy foods and that this mandate should be added to current policy debates for improving diets. One way for this to happen is for both policy makers and the food industry to work together to be part of the solution to increasing the consumption of not only fruits and vegetables but also whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.  When more of us begin making the decision to eat healthier foods, we all benefit be lower healthcare costs, improved health and longer life, and a stronger workforce making economies of all countries successful.