Diet & Nutrition

A new study reveals that poor diet kills more people than smoking

Having a healthier diet could prevent one in five premature deaths, a new study has found.

By Anya Truong-George
Eating and drinking poorly has been found to kill more people globally per year than smoking, a new study has revealed.
The findings, part of the Global Burden of Disease study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), found that unhealthy diets are responsible for 11 million preventable deaths globally, but the problem is not the junk food that people eat, but rather the nutritious food we don't.
New research has found that it's not the high levels of salt, fat and sugar that people consume that's causing death, but more the lack of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes that contribute to more premature death globally, than smoking. (Image: Getty)
The study, published in the Lancet medical journal says that while sugar and trans-fat are harmful, the real problem lies in the lack of healthy foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and legumes in people's diets.
Researchers say heart attacks and stroke are the main diet-related cause of death, followed by cancers and type 2 diabetes.
"Our findings show that suboptimal diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risks globally, including tobacco smoking, highlighting the urgent need for improving human diet across nations," the authors write.
They say rather than focusing on encouraging people to cut down on sugar, sodium and fat, they believe the focus should be on promoting healthy options instead.
"Generally in real life people do substitution," lead author Dr Ashkan Afshin from IHME says.
"When they increase the consumption of something, they decrease the consumption of other things."
Afsin says countries that consume a mainly Mediterranean diet are more likely to have a higher content of fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes – such as Lebanon, Israel and Iran – however he says no country has an optimal level of healthy food consumption.
"Even in countries that have a Mediterranean diet, the current intake of many other dietary factors is not optimal," he says.
Researchers say countries who consume a largely Mediterranean diet will usually have a closer-to-optimal amount of healthy foods in their diet. (Image: Getty)
The paper is the most comprehensive research on the health effects of diet ever conducted, the IHME says.
The study looked at 15 nutrients, some good for your health and some not so good, as well as the consumption levels of red and processed meat, sugary drinks, and milk and fibre consumption.
Poor diets were responsible for 10.9 million of all deaths among adults above the age of 25 in 2017 with cardiovascular disease being the leading cause, whereas tobacco accounted for 8 million deaths.
Co-author of the study, Professor Walter Willett from Harvard University says the results are also consistent with recently published studies that found the cardiovascular benefits of replacing red meat with plant-sourced protein.
"Adoption of diets emphasising soy foods, beans and other healthy plant sources of protein will have important benefits for both human and planetary health," he says.
Another author on the study Dr Christopher Murray says the study affirms what many people have thought for quite some 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 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."