Unhealthy diets are responsible for the deaths of 11 million people globally per year, even more than smoking tobacco, according to a study.
But the biggest problem is not the junk we eat but the nutritious food we don’t eat, say researchers, calling for a global shift in policy to promote vegetables, fruit, nuts and legumes.
While sugar and trans-fats are harmful, more deaths are caused by the absence of healthy foods in our diet, the study found.
The research is part of the Global Burden of Disease study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle, published in the Lancet medical journal.
In the study, researchers analysed eating habits of people across 195 countries to estimate how much poor diets contribute to mortality.
Lead author Ashkan Afshin, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, said the researchers estimated that, overall, poor diets are responsible for more deaths around the world than any other risk factor, including cigarette smoking, known to be one of the greatest threats to public health.
The problem, he said, is not only what people are eating, but it’s also what they’re not eating.
The study estimated that globally, 3 million deaths were attributed to too much sodium — but another 3 million deaths were attributed to a lack of adequate whole grains, and another 2 million deaths were attributed to a lack of adequate fruit.
Experts say it confirms what health professionals have been teaching for years — a balanced diet is important for a long, healthy life.
Afshin, an assistant professor in the University of Washington Department of Health Metrics Sciences, said researchers evaluated survey data on dietary consumption, sales of food products, and household expenditures over the past three decades to estimate the impact of a poor diet on death from noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease.
The researchers estimated that in 2017, cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of diet-related deaths around the world, followed by certain cancers and diabetes.
“The results are based on limited data and assumptions, but conclusions are consistent with major reports from public health and medical authorities,” said Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Nestle noted that the researchers seem to be recommending a largely, but not exclusively, plant-based diet, “and that’s what everybody is saying these days.”
Afshin said countries where people eat a Mediterranean diet — high in heart-healthy fats and fiber — scored the best using the researchers’ model, with Israel ranking No. 1 in terms of the least number of diet-related deaths. France and Spain ranked second and third, respectively, according to the research.
Afshin defined the Mediterranean diet as one with a high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and healthy oils, such as olive oil.