Global Studies Now Say Bad Diets Kill More People Than Smoking

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For decades, scientists have correlated smoking and drug use with death. A recent global study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation takes a different angle: Instead, bad diets are more strongly to blame.

According to a new study published in the scientific journal The Lancet, a whopping 11 million deaths worldwide can be linked to bad diets. The ways in which people eat badly are well documented, but never before has such a high number of deaths been linked to bad diets. Dr. Christopher Murray of the University of Washington, one of the study’s authors, claims that the report validates what many health experts have thought for years.

It’s well established that people generally don’t eat enough healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, seeds, nuts, and whole grains. Compounding this issue is that people also eat too much salt and too many processed meats and drink too many sugary drinks. The new study published in The Lancet uses survey, sales, and household expenditure data from 2017, gathered from people in nearly 200 countries, to put new figures to just how strongly these global dietary trends lead to death.

The study’s authors then correlated the data they gathered on bad diets with deaths from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. 10 of these 11 million deaths stemmed from heart disease resulting from poor eating habits, 913,000 were from cancer, and 339,000 were from type 2 diabetes. They also calculated how many deaths stemmed from smoking and drug use.

According to the study’s lead author, Ashkan Afshin, bad diets are the number one risk factor for death in the majority of the world. Afshin, of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, says that the study shows this risk factor is more prevalent than tobacco and even high blood pressure.

Afshin, Murray, and their team also figured out which of the countries involved in the study have the best diets. Spain, Japan, France, and Israel ranked low on the list of countries affected by deaths from bad diets. Among the countries highest on this list are Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the Marshall Islands. Afshin noted that countries whose people eat in ways that resemble the Mediterranean diet rank lower on the list. This diet, comprised of healthy fats, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, has long been associated with heart health.

The U.S. ranks 43rd among countries in which bad diets are linked to death. For every 100,000 American deaths, 171 were linked to bad diets. The study found that the main driver of American dietary issues isn’t what many might assume — instead of high sugar or sodium intake or low fruit and vegetable intake, low whole grain intake is the main culprit. Many Americans, according to the study, don’t get the 125 grams of whole grains needed daily.

In addition to the toll bad diets take on human life, poor eating has financial consequences. The Center for Strategic and International Studies recently reported that malnutrition costs the global economy $3.5 trillion every year.

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