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Poor eating habits kill more people than drinking or smoking, says an alarming study published in the journal The Lancet.

The extensive study on worldwide diet trends identified a link between unhealthy diets and 11 million deaths around the globe in 2017. Over 50 percent of these deaths were associated with consuming a lot of salty foods and not getting enough fruits and whole grains.

Junk food and premature death

Data from the study revealed that a bad diet is worse for your health compared to alcohol consumption and other common risk factors for premature death. Poor diets were significant contributors to deaths associated with cancer, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Ashkan Afshin, one of the authors of the study, explained that risk factors linked to poor diets affect individuals “regardless of their age, gender, or socioeconomic background.”

Afshin, who is also an assistant professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, added that despite the varying magnitude of this problem, people from different countries are all affected.

Analyzing dietary factors

The researchers conducted the study as part of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) research effort. The program aims to gather and analyze data concerning premature death and disability from over 350 diseases and injuries in 195 countries.

In the study, the researchers referenced data from the GBD and other sources such as national nutrition surveys. The participants were adults aged 25 and older, and the data covered 27 years from 1990 to 2017.

The study authors analyzed 15 dietary factors. This included diets low in calcium, fiber, fruits, legumes, milk, nuts and seeds, omega-3 fatty acids (from seafood), polyunsaturated fats, vegetables, and whole grains.

The rest of the factors included diets high in processed meat, red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fatty acids, and sodium.

The researchers used various statistical approaches to determine the consumption and the number of deaths and disabilities linked to poor dietary habits. Additionally, they compared the number of deaths associated with each of the 15 dietary components with other established risk factors like being overweight or obese, drinking, high blood pressure, low physical activity, and smoking.

The researchers found that poor dietary factors overall ranked as the most important risk factor for mortality globally. Bad diets led to more deaths than other risk factors like drinking and smoking.

Eat more greens and less meat

The researchers also determined the optimal intake for every dietary factor by estimating the levels of intake linked to the lowest chances of death.

They found that the global population didn’t consume enough fruit and whole grains. The survey takers also didn’t consume beneficial levels of milk, nuts, and seeds.

Meanwhile, the participants consumed too many sugary drinks and processed meats.

The average per-person overload of processed meats was almost twice the advised amount, or 0.14 compared to 0.07 ounces, respectively. Worldwide, people were consuming 86 percent more sodium every day, or a little over one teaspoon, than what was considered healthy.

Dr. David Katz, founder and president of the True Health Initiative, warned that high salt intake seems to be the number one association with premature death all over the developed world. Katz believes that this is because about 80 percent of the sodium people consume comes from processed food and that this tolerance of processed food may be lethal.

Katz, who wasn’t involved in the study, suggested that the study verifies findings from earlier research about the significant impact of healthy eating habits on the prevention of chronic diseases.

In the study, scientists associated 255 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) to poor diet. The World Health Organization noted that one DALYs is equal to one lost year of “healthy” life.

Katz emphasized that the basics of healthy eating habits and overall well-being will stay the same. A nutritious diet must include a lot of minimally processed foods such as beans, fruits, lentils, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and whole grains, along with plain water instead of sugary drinks. Make these foods the bulk of your diet and consume dairy, eggs, fish, and lean meat moderately.

Avoid fad diets and start a healthy meal plan, such as a vegetarian or Mediterranean diet. Other easy ways to improve your eating habits include eating more fresh fruit, drinking more water, consuming whole grains, and eating smaller portion sizes.

Afshin said that the study suggests that the major problem isn’t the high intake of junk food. Rather, it’s the low intake of nutritious food.

The current GBD findings provide proof that this problem can be rectified by shifting the focus from “an emphasis on dietary restriction to promoting healthy food components.”

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