Unhealthy diet biggest risk factor for early deaths worldwide

Latest research shows that a diet low in nutrients caused over 11 million deaths in 2017, this is more deaths than from smoking or other high risk health factors.

The Global Burden of Disease Study, a comprehensive effort to measure epidemiological levels and trends worldwide, looked at dietary consumption between 1990 and 2017 in 195 countries, focusing on 15 types of food or nutrients.

The study, by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, concluded that, due to its contribution to noncommunicable diseases, poor diet accounted for 1 in 5, or 11 million, adult deaths in 2017. The vast majority of those deaths, around 10 million, were from cardiovascular disease. The rest were mainly from cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Ranking the countries from lowest to highest rates of diet-related deaths puts Israel first, with just 89 deaths per 100,000 people, and Uzbekistan last, with 892 per 100,000 people.

United States, with 171 deaths per 100,000, came in at 43rd place and United Kingdom was at 23rd, with 127 deaths per 100,000. India stood in 118th place, and China in 140th.

In their analysis of global diets, the researchers looked at 15 items: fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, fiber, calcium, milk, omega-3 fatty acids from seafood, polyunsaturated fats, trans fats, red meat, processed meat, sugary drinks, and sodium.

They found that in 2017, the global diet contained less than the ideal amounts of nearly all healthful food items. The biggest deficiency was in nuts and seeds, milk, and whole grains. Consumption of nuts and seeds, for instance, was on average only 3 grams (g) per day, or around 12 percent of the optimal intake. Consumption of milk was only 16 percent of optimal intake and whole grains was only 23 percent.

Alongside these, daily intakes of unhealthful dietary items “exceeded the optimal level globally.” Sugary drink consumption, for example, “was far higher than the optimal intake,” followed by the consumption of processed meat and sodium. Red meat consumption was just above the optimal level.

An important finding of the study was that insufficient intake of healthful foods could be just as, if not more, damaging than eating too many unhealthful foods. The study noted diets that related to the most deaths were “high in sodium, low in whole grains, low in fruit, low in nuts and seeds, low in vegetables, and low in omega-3 fatty acids.” Each of these dietary factors accounted “for more than 2 percent of global deaths.”

In addition, just three of these — whole grains, fruits, and sodium — accounted for more than half of the diet-related deaths and two-thirds of the years lost to diet-related ill health and disability.

However, the researchers behind the study conceded that there were several challenges to shifting the global diet toward a more healthful one. One such stumbling block was the  prohibitive costs of fruits and vegetables. For example, in low-income countries, two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables per day per individual accounted for 52 percent of household income, compared with just 2 percent in high-income nations.