Unhealthy Diets Cause More Deaths Per Year Than Smoking

by Julie Scagell
Image via Diana Miller/Getty Images

The study included 195 countries worldwide and found that unhealthy diets are actually pretty dangerous

A global study came out with some pretty scary findings — poor diets are found to cause more deaths per year than smoking. Annually, over 11 million deaths each year around the globe are linked to the food we consume, many of them the result of preventable risk factors for non-communicable diseases.

According to a study published in The Lancet, society as a whole doesn’t eat enough healthy foods including whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Additionally, people are consuming too much sugar, salt, and processed meat.

Researchers analyzed the diets of people in 195 countries via a survey, also looking at sales and household expenditure data, and then estimated the impact of poor diets on the risk of death from diseases including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. What they found was not entirely unsurprising, but a bit shocking nonetheless.

“In 2017, 11 million deaths were attributable to dietary risk factors. High intake of sodium, low intake of whole grains, and low intake of fruits were the leading dietary risk factors for deaths and DALYs (disability-adjusted life year) globally and in many countries,” the study found.

“This study shows that poor diet is the leading risk factor for deaths in the majority of the countries of the world,” author Ashkan Afshin of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington said. These unhealthy diets are “a larger determinant of ill health than either tobacco or high blood pressure.”

Unfortunately for many, eating fresh, organic food isn’t always an option. “Having an extra ten bucks to treat my kid to some fries and and ice cream while he plays at McDonald’s feels like we’re having a five-star meal sometimes,” says writer Sa’iyda Shabazz. And with the Trump administration trying to decide if able-bodied people who don’t work should be entitled to public food assistance, the below numbers will likely increase over time.

According to the CDC, the prevalence of obesity is 18.5 percent, affecting about 13.7 million children and adolescents. “Among both boys and girls obesity prevalence decreases as income increases, but this relation is not consistent across race and ethnicity groups,” they reported.

The study also found the U.S ranked 43rd of 195 countries, and China ranked 140th. Israel, France, Spain, and Japan had the lowest number of diet-related deaths.

“Generally, the countries that have a diet close to the Mediterranean diet, which has higher intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and healthy oils [including olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids from fish] are the countries where we see the lowest number of [diet-related] deaths,” one of the study’s authors says.

But the solution is more complex than most people think. If everyone were to fill three-fourths of their plates with fruits, vegetables and whole grains many believe we’d actually run out. A study published in the journal PLOS One found that fruits and vegetables would eventually become scarce.

“We simply can’t all adopt a healthy diet under the current global agriculture system,” Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, said. “At a global level, we have a mismatch between what we should be eating, and what we’re producing.”

It’s clear there are a number of solutions that need to happen simultaneously for the world to have access to healthy foods, but the study shows a lifetime of unhealthy eating will most definitely catch up.