Bad Diet Killing More People Worldwide Than Smoking

A major study has found that a bad diet is responsible for more deaths worldwide than any other risk factor including smoking. Unhealthy diets are responsible for 11m preventable deaths globally per year, more even than smoking tobacco, according to the latest study. Eating and drinking better could prevent one in five early deaths. The Global Burden of Disease Study looked at dietary consumption between 1990 and 2017 in 195 countries, focusing on 15 types of food or nutrients.


In a paper that features in The Lancet, the study investigators conclude that, due to its contribution to noncommunicable diseases, poor diet accounted for 1 in 5, or 11 million, adult deaths in 2017. While sugar and trans-fats are harmful, more deaths are caused by the absence of healthy foods in our diet, the study found. But the biggest problem is not the junk we eat but the nutritious food we don’t eat say, researchers, calling for a global shift in policy to promote vegetables, fruit, nuts and legumes.

Ranking the countries from lowest to highest rates of diet-related deaths puts Israel first, with 89 deaths per 100,000 people, and Uzbekistan last, with 892 per 100,000. The United States, with 171 deaths per 100,000, comes in at 43rd place and the United Kingdom at 23rd, with 127 deaths per 100,000. India is in 118th place, and China is in 140th. The vast majority of those deaths, around 10 million, were from cardiovascular disease. Heart attacks and strokes are the main diet-related causes of death, followed by cancers and type 2 diabetes, say researchers.

Latest Study about Eating and Drinking


The latest study found that eating and drinking better could prevent one in five deaths around the world. Although diets vary from one country to another, eating too few fruits and vegetables and too much sodium (salt) accounted for half of all deaths and two-thirds of the years of disability attributable to diet. The study author Dr Christopher J. L. Murray, who is director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, "affirms what many have thought for several years that poor diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor in the world."

Countries that have a mainly Mediterranean diet eat more fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes, said Dr Ashkan Afshin of the IHME, naming Lebanon, Iran and Israel among the better performers. “But no country has an optimal level of consumption of all the healthy foods. Even in countries that have a Mediterranean diet, the current intake of many other dietary factors is not optimal.” The paper is the most comprehensive analysis on the health effects of diet ever conducted, says the IHME.

They found that the global diet in 2017 contained less than the ideal amounts of nearly all healthful food items. Consumption of milk was only 16 percent of optimal intake and whole grains was only 23 percent. The biggest deficiency was in nuts and seeds, milk, and whole grains. Consumption of nuts and seeds, for instance, was on average only 3 grams (g) per day, or around 12 percent of the optimal intake. An important finding of the study was that insufficient intake of healthful foods could be just as, if not more, damaging than eating too many unhealthful foods.

Tobacco was associated with 8m deaths, and high blood pressure was linked to 10.4m deaths. Poor diets were responsible for 10.9m deaths, or 22% of all deaths among adults in 2017. Cardiovascular disease was the leading cause, followed by cancers and diabetes. Nearly half – 45% – were in people younger than 70. The authors note that the diets that related to the most deaths were "high in sodium, low in whole grains, low in fruit, low in nuts and seeds, low in vegetables, and low in omega-3 fatty acids."

Dr Murray says that these results contrast with the fact that, over the last 20 years, policy discussions have tended to focus more on restricting unhealthful foods.  Prof Walter Willett from Harvard University said that the findings were consistent with a recently published analysis of the benefits for cardiovascular health of replacing red meat with plant sources of protein. He and his colleagues suggest that campaigns should concentrate on rebalancing diets. They also urge that any changes to food production and distribution aimed to achieve this must consider the environmental impact on the climate, water, land and soil.

Tom Sanders, a professor emeritus of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, said the analysis put too much emphasis on individual components rather than the overall diet. “Obesity is a major driver for risk of type 2 diabetes as well as cancer and the health evidence for this relationship is strong. Obesity is caused by eating more food energy than required rather than specific dietary components such as sugar. Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., agree with the authors in that "in a global context" and despite its limitations, the study offers "evidence to shift the focus" from restricting unhealthful food items to increasing healthful ones.

The trend for populations to become increasingly sedentary is a major reason why there is an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure but increased availability of foods with a high energy density (more calories/gram) makes it too easy to overeat.” They suggest that it confirms a need to emphasize foods rather than nutrients. However, they also highlight some of the challenges of shifting the global diet toward a more healthful one, such as the "prohibitive" costs of fruits and vegetables.

The paper also highlights the production, distribution, and consumption of healthy foods across all nations. While sodium, fat, and sugar have been the focus of policy debates over the past two decades, our assessment suggests the leading dietary risk factors are low intake of healthy foods or high intake of sodium, such as whole grains, nuts, fruit, vegetables and seeds.