An expansive new study published this week in The Lancet concluded that poor diets are the most significant contributing factor to death from lifestyle-related diseases. In fact, poor diets kill one in five people at the global level. The most lethal dietary factors that affect over half of the global population are the low intake of whole grains and fruit, as well as the excessive intake of sodium. Along with other measures — such as not consuming enough veggies, omega-3s, or nuts and seeds — poor diets led to 11 million deaths in 2017, killing even more people than tobacco. To put that number into perspective, that’s roughly the population of the Dominican Republic, killed in one year after a lifetime of unhealthy eating.
Looking at epidemiological data from countries across the world, the researchers found that while different populations have different eating habits and health risks, there is a global imbalance in how much whole grains, fruit, and sodium are consumed. Zooming in to the regional level, other factors can take precedence. The biggest dietary killer in Central America, for example, is a diet low in nuts and seeds (which are excellent sources of polyunsaturated fats), while East Asians are need to be watching their sodium.
These imbalances lead to fatal chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. All told, cardiovascular disease led to a majority of diet-related deaths in 2017 — about 10 million of the total. Cardiovascular diseases cover a broad range of conditions like stroke, coronary artery disease, cardiac arrest, and congestive heart failure.
The authors of the study observed that while public health officials and the food industry have focused their efforts on reducing sugar-sweetened beverages and trans fat in recent decades through public health campaigns, nutrition label redesign, and even taxes, this study revealed that these ingredients should be the least of our worries, in terms of their actual effect on mortality risk. The same goes for the consumption of red meat and processed meat.
Instead, we need to do much more than to simply cut out the “bad stuff” (which, as we’ve only begun to learn, is more complicated than just vilifying an entire dietary components like fat). The study is significant in revealing that we desperately need to add in a lot more of the good stuff into our diets. The Lancet study calls for the concerted addition of food groups in order to make diets healthy and promote longevity. “Generally, the countries that have a diet close to the Mediterranean diet, which has higher intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and healthy oils are the countries where we see the lowest number of [diet-related] deaths,” one of the study’s authors told NPR.
This is a tall order, considering how many people associate the word “diet” with the act of trimming something away, of making a certain food group off-limits. Additionally, farms worldwide are not producing enough of the good stuff, so shifting the global diet requires a revolution. The lead author told the New York Times, “[This] study says that it’s time to change the conversation both at the policy level and among the general public.”