Poor Diet Kills More People than Smoking or High Blood Pressure

New global research showed the longevity advantage of following a nutrient-dense diet that is plentiful in fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.

Apr. 16, 2019
By Mary West

Recent News

Although smok­ing and high blood pres­sure are risk fac­tors for early death, eating a poor diet is respon­si­ble for even more fatal­i­ties.

A new study esti­mates one in five deaths world­wide stem from fol­low­ing a diet that is defi­cient in healthy plant foods. Adherence to a nutri­tious eating plan, such as the Mediterranean diet (MedDiet), may save mil­lions of lives.

This study affirms what many have thought for sev­eral years – that poor diet is respon­si­ble for more deaths than any other risk factor in the world- Christopher Murray, study author

The Global Burden of Disease study tracked dietary con­sump­tion habits in 195 coun­tries from 1990 to 2017. It found that 11 mil­lion deaths are linked to poor diet, which con­tributes to an array of chronic dis­eases. The results showed that more deaths are caused by diets low in fruits, whole grains, seeds and nuts than by diets with a high con­tent of red meat, processed meat, sugary bev­er­ages and trans fat.

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“This study affirms what many have thought for sev­eral years – that poor diet is respon­si­ble for more deaths than any other risk factor in the world,” study author Christopher Murray, direc­tor of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said. “While sodium, sugar, and fat have been the focus of policy debates over the past two decades, our assess­ment sug­gests the lead­ing dietary risk fac­tors are high intake of sodium, or low intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, and veg­eta­bles.”

“The paper also high­lights the need for com­pre­hen­sive inter­ven­tions to pro­mote the pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and con­sump­tion of healthy foods across all nations,” he added.


The research used data from epi­demi­o­log­i­cal stud­ies to eval­u­ate how the con­sump­tion of major foods and nutri­ents affects the rate of non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble ill­nesses; namely, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, cancer and dia­betes.

It focused on 15 dietary ele­ments that were divided into two cat­e­gories: inad­e­quate intake of nutri­tious foods and ele­vated intake of non-nutri­tious foods. The former cat­e­gory included low con­sump­tion of fruits, veg­eta­bles, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, fiber, cal­cium, milk, polyun­sat­u­rated fats, and omega‑3 fatty acids. Diets high in processed meat, red meat, trans fatty acids, sugar-sweet­ened bev­er­ages and sodium com­prised the latter cat­e­gory.

According to the results, 11 mil­lion deaths in 2017 were due to poor diet. More than half of these deaths were attrib­uted to diets high in sodium and low in fruits and whole grains.


Cardiovascular dis­ease was the top cause of death, respon­si­ble for more than 10 mil­lion fatal­i­ties. Cancer caused 913,000 deaths, and Type 2 dia­betes caused almost 339,000 deaths.

Uzbekistan had the high­est death rate, with 892 mor­tal­i­ties per 100,000 people; while Israel had the lowest mor­tal­ity rate, with 89 mor­tal­i­ties per 100,000 people. Other coun­tries with lower death rates included Spain, France, Japan and Andorra. The United States ranked forty-third in the world, with 171 deaths per 100,000 people.


Spain also topped the Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index in 2019, while Israel, France and Japan fin­ished in the top 20.

Although it is impor­tant to con­tinue to stress avoid­ance of unhealthy foods like fat and sugar, the study empha­sized that a greater empha­sis should be placed on the inclu­sion of healthy foods in the diet.

These include fruits, veg­eta­bles, whole grains, seeds and nuts, fatty fish and olive oil, all of which are sta­ples of the MedDiet. A poor diet’s impact on health can not be over­es­ti­mated, as the find­ings showed it is linked to more deaths than any other risk factor, includ­ing smok­ing.

Biochemist Barry Sears, author of the Zone Diet book series and pres­i­dent of the Inflammation Research Foundation shared with Olive Oil Times the fac­tors that may under­lie the find­ings.

“Fruits and veg­eta­bles are rich in fer­mentable fiber, which is essen­tial for gut health, and polyphe­nols, which are needed for many aspect of well­ness,” he said. “Sugar, fat and refined grains, con­stituents of the stan­dard Western Diet, are devoid of these healthy dietary con­stituents. Taking fer­mentable fiber and polyphe­nols out of the diet is a sure-fire pre­scrip­tion for increased inflam­ma­tion, which leads to an array of chronic dis­eases and a shorter lifes­pan.”

The study was pub­lished in The Lancet.