Poor diet causes one in seven deaths in Britain, Lancet finds

Grant Boone
April 6, 2019

Poor diet accounts for a fifth of all deaths around the world and kills far more people than smoking, a new study has shown.

The causes of these deaths included 10 million deaths from cardiovascular disease, 913,000 cancer-related deaths, and nearly 339,000 deaths from Type-2 diabetes. Israel, France, Spain, and Japan were among the countries with the lowest rates of diet-related disease. The study showed that globally, one in every five deaths can be attributed to a poor diet.

The study tracked trends in consumption of 15 dietary factors from 1990 to 2017 in a total of 195 countries. Compared to deaths caused by diets with high levels of processed and red meats and foods such as sugary drinks and trans fats, those caused by diets with very low amounts of foods such as seeds and nuts, fruits, and whole grains were more in number in 2017.

'Poor diet is an equal opportunity killer, ' lead author Dr Ashkan Afshin, an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, said. Diets high in sodium, low in whole grains, and low in fruit together accounted for more than half of all diet-related deaths globally in 2017. The U.S ranked 43rd, and China ranked 140th.

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"We know that sugar is bad and people eat 10 times as much sugar as is recommended; we know that nuts are good, and prevent disease, and people eat only 12 percent of the recommended amount of nuts; so, we're eating way too much of the bad stuff, and hardly enough of the good stuff", said Mark Hyman, M.D., director of the Center for Functional Medicine of Cleveland Clinic, who did not take part in the study. The question now is: do we have that much healthy foods to feed the globe? Improving diets won't be easy: A range of initiatives may be needed, including nutrition education and increased access to healthy foods, as well as rethinking agricultural production. At the same time, we consume too many sugary drinks, too much salt and too much processed meat.

The global diet included 16 percent of the recommended amount of milk (71g average intake per day, compared with 435g) and about a quarter (23 percent) of the recommended amount of whole grains (29g compared with 125g).

The conclusion was drawn at the end of a long-standing global study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and published in The Lancet on April 3. It is the most comprehensive worldwide observational epidemiological study.

"There are of course considerable challenges in shifting populations" diets in this direction, illustrated by the cost of fruits and vegetables being disproportionately prohibitive.

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