“Low intake of healthy foods and high intake of unhealthy foods is the leading cause of mortality, globally and in many countries.”

— Dr. Ashkan Afshin (University of Washington) — Time


A new study analyzing the health effects of dietary risk factors in 195 countries reveals that unhealthy diets consisting of foods we shouldn’t be eating (high in salt, saturated fat, and sugar) and foods we should be eating more of but aren’t (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and omega-3 fatty acids) leads to more deaths globally than any other health risk, including smoking. Jamie Ducharme says the new research published last week in The Lancet indicates that the good foods we’re not eating impacts our health more than the “bad” foods we are eating:

Eating too much sodium — which is linked to high blood pressure and heart conditions — was the largest cause of diet-related death globally, the researchers found. But on the whole, “the main problem we see is the low intake of healthy food,” rather than high intake of unhealthy food, Afshin says. Aside from over-eating sodium and trans fats, most of the top dietary risk factors were related to not eating enough nutritious foods, including whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, polyunsaturated fats and legumes, Afshin says.


The researchers estimate that in 2017, dietary risk factors resulted in one in five deaths worldwide (about 11 million humans). The three top risk factors accounting for more than half of diet-related deaths were too much salt (3 million deaths), the low intake of unprocessed whole grains (also 3 million deaths) and fruits (2 million deaths). In short, the study found that globally, consumption of healthy foods and nutrients is suboptimal while eating unhealthy foods like salt, sugar (especially sugar-sweetened beverages) and processed meat is over the top. The global consumption of red meat was found to be 18% higher than optimal. No country or region of the world distinguished itself from the rest in terms of better dietary habits:

Poor diets — which include those that are too heavy in sugary drinks, trans fats and processed meats, and too light in whole grains, produce and nuts — were associated with death and disease all over the world. Not a single region ate the optimal amount of all 15 dietary elements, and none of the dietary elements was eaten in the right amount all over the world. The highest rates of diet-related death were found in Oceania, and the lowest were in higher-income Asian Pacific countries, the study says. Out of 195 countries, the United States had the 43rd-highest proportion of diet-related deaths, according to the research.


The lack of whole grains — defined by Sandee LaMotte as “the use of the entire seed of a plant: the bran, the germ and the endosperm” — is the biggest dietary risk factor in the U.S. In Asia, the high amount of dietary sodium is the leading culprit. No matter where you live, however, we all need to do better to reduce these dietary risks to good health.

Back in January, we took a look at The Planetary Health Diet — “a new strategy to feed an increasing global population, improve health, and protect the planet from environmental and resource degradation”:

Transforming eating habits and reducing waste may seem like a tall order in our land of plenty, but there is too much at stake — our own health and the health of the planet — to resist change. We can expect the decisions we make now to impact not only our health and well-being, but, more importantly, the health and well-being of future generations. Children will eat what adults feed them. As difficult as it may seem, it’s up to us, not them (at least not yet), to make the right decisions.


The prescription for a healthy life provides children more real foods — more whole grains, nuts, and seeds; more fruits and vegetables; more legumes and beans (in other words, more fiber); more omega-3 fatty acids from fish — and less processed and packaged foods and beverages laden with salt and sugar, saturated fat (especially in red and processed meats), and synthetic chemicals. That dietary regimen should begin from the very start.


(Image: Pexels)