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A study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has found that poor diets have killed more than 500,000 Americans a year and more than 90,000 Brits. Those figures exceed the risk factors for premature death from smoking and hypertension.
The culprit is the so-called “Western diet” that is heavy in red meat, fats, and sugar while being low in fruit and vegetables. Based on the latest data available (up to the year 2017), one in five deaths globally (10.9 million adults) is a result of a poor diet.
China and India have the most number of deaths (over 3 million and 1 million, respectively), followed by Russia with 550,000. The US has the fourth-highest rate of death from diet while the UK has the 18th-highest.
Lead author Ashkan Afshin, an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, said, “Poor diet is an equal opportunity killer.
We are what we eat and risks affect people across a range of demographics – including age, gender, and economic status.”
Cardiovascular disease like strokes and heart attacks contributed to the largest number of deaths followed by cancers and type 2 diabetes. They are all non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that contribute to three-quarters of deaths, most of them happening unnecessarily early.
Experts point to the decline in the global consumption of nuts, seeds, milk, and whole grains and increases in the consumption of processed meat, salt, and soda for the alarming trend.
Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington and co-author of the study, said: “This study affirms what many have thought for several years – that poor diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor in the world.
“While sodium, sugar, and fat have been the focus of policy debates over the past two decades, our assessment suggests the leading dietary risk factors are a high intake of sodium, or low intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, and vegetables.
“The paper also highlights the need for comprehensive interventions to promote the production, distribution, and consumption of healthy foods across all nations.”
Over 130 scientists from nearly 40 countries collaborated on the study, the most comprehensive analysis of its kind.
In contrast, tobacco was associated with 8 million deaths while high blood pressure was linked to 10.4 million deaths.
Diet contributed to 9,497,300 deaths from cardiovascular disease, 913,100 from cancer, 338,700 from diabetes, and 136,600 from kidney diseases.
The study, which was published in The Lancet, also discovered low intake of whole grains and fruits coupled with high consumption of salt contributed to more than half the cases. The rest were linked to high consumption of red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened drinks, and trans fatty acids typically found in packaged foods like cakes, spreads, and cookies.
Dr. Afshin said: “We are highlighting the importance of low consumption of healthy foods as compared to the greater consumption of unhealthy foods.
“Dietary policies focusing on promoting healthy eating can have a more beneficial effect than policies advocating against unhealthy foods.”
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