Having a poor diet is worse than lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, and even smoking. According to a huge study that involved more than 130 scientists across 40 countries, poor diets were responsible for 22% of all adult deaths in 2017.
“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,” said lead study author Dr. Christopher Murray, Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Poor diet is an “equal opportunity killer”, researchers say
Diets high in sodium (too much salt) were associated with the most diet-related deaths, followed by whole grain deficiency and not consuming enough fruit, vegetables, fiber, nuts, and omega-3 from seafood. Poor diets led to 10.9 million deaths in 2017, with cardiovascular disease ranking as the primary cause, followed by cancer and diabetes.
Out of all 195 countries, the highest proportion of diet-related deaths was recorded in Uzbekistan (892 diet-related deaths per 100,000 people), and the lowest was measured in Israel (89 diet-related deaths per 100,000 people). The United States ranked 43rd on the list.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries which follow the Mediterranean diet — which emphasizes eating fresh, whole foods — ranked among the lowest in terms of diet-related deaths. For instance, Israel, Spain, and France had good scores for healthy diets.
After they analyzed 15 dietary factors, the researchers found that most diet-related deaths were generally associated with not eating enough healthy foods (whole grains, fruit, nuts, and seeds) rather than eating too many unhealthy foods (trans fats, sugary drinks, and high levels of red and processed meats).
“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,” Murray said.
Poor diets do not kill overnight but rather slowly cause a person’s bodily functions to collapse. The same study found that poor dieting was responsible for 255 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) — the number of years spent living with disabilities as a consequence of poor diets across the studied populations. Overall, a poor diet is responsible for 16% of adult DALYs worldwide.
The authors recommend that people switch to a more balanced diet which is rich in fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, plant-based protein, and whole grains, while decreasing the consumption of sugary drinks, processed foods, red meat, and foods high in sodium.