Diets lacking in healthy food are responsible for more deaths across the globe than smoking, a major new study has concluded.
The research, published in British journal The Lancet, claims that around 11 million deaths per year — or one in five — are a result of a poor diet.
The diets cutting lives short were found to be particularly high in salt and too low in whole grains and fruit.
The analysis, part of The Global Burden of Disease Study, saw researchers assess the diets of people in 195 countries using data from surveys, sales, and household expenditure from 1990 to 2017.
Of the 11 million deaths linked to diet in 2017, 10 million were a result of cardiovascular disease. Cancer (913,000 deaths) and Type 2 diabetes (339,000) were the next biggest diet-related killers.
“This study shows that poor diet is the leading risk factor for deaths in the majority of the countries of the world,” said study author Ashkan Afshin of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
He added that unhealthy diets are “a larger determinant of ill health than either tobacco or high blood pressure.”
Consuming too much salt and too few whole grains were found to be particularly fatal, with each being responsible for three million deaths.
Not eating enough fruit was linked to a further two million deaths, too.
Salt raises blood pressure and thus risk of cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke.
We should be eating more:
- Whole grains
- Omega-3 (found in fish and seafood)
We should be eating less:
- Sugary drinks
- Processed meat
Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries where people follow a Mediterranean-style diet were found to have the fewest diet-related deaths: Israel, Spain, and France emerged top in the research, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
At the other end of the spectrum, Uzbekistan, Papua New Guinea, and Afghanistan were found to have the most diet-related deaths.
For context, Israel had 89 diet-related deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 892 in Uzbekistan.
The UK had 127 diet-related deaths per 100,000 people per year, and the US had 170.
“Generally, the countries that have a diet close to the Mediterranean diet, which has higher intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and healthy oils [including olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids from fish] are the countries where we see the lowest number of [diet-related] deaths,” Afshin said.
The researchers note that there were some limitations to their study — for example, the quality of data varied somewhat between countries, and they also didn’t evaluate the effect of other forms of malnutrition (ie. undernutrition and obesity).
However, they’re encouraging people to focus more on adding healthy foods to their diets, rather than punishing them for eating fat and sugar.
This is because there is a bigger gap between how much healthy food people should eat and what they actually do, than how much unhealthy food people eat and the amount they should consume.
For example, the average daily red meat consumption across the globe is 27 grams when the recommended limit is 23 grams.
In contrast, the average daily consumption of nuts and seeds is just 3 grams, which is far below the recommended 21 grams.
However the one food researchers really are calling on people to eat less of is salt.