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

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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.

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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.





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  1. Dolores Smith says:

    Would be valu­able to know why polyun­sat­u­rated oil was cho­sen in the study ver­sus monoun­sat­u­rated from olive oil…is it due to requir­ing a fat that is con­sumed across dif­fer­ent diets in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, lower cost to pur­chase for more peo­ple? Of course, olive oil in con­junc­tion with fish oil are pre­dom­i­nant fats con­sumed most in vol­ume com­pared to fat from nuts when con­sid­er­ing the tra­di­tional Mediterranean diet. A brief expla­na­tion would be great to present a con­text and elim­i­nate assump­tions on the part of some read­ers as to whether cer­tain fats are health­ier than oth­ers.

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