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.

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