The biggest cause of early death in the world is not smoking or alcohol - it's what you eat

Unhealthy eating overall contributes to more deaths than any other factor - because they can lead to ischemic heart disease, strokes and diabetes

Children are being bombarded with scenes of unhealthy eating on TV
Children are being bombarded with scenes of unhealthy eating on TV

Unhealthy eating has been named as the most common cause of premature death around the globe, new data has revealed.

A poor diet – which involves eating too few vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains and too much red meat, salt and sugar - was shown to be a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol.

But for the UK, unhealthy eating is still pipped to the top spot of high-risk factors in early death by smoking. Low levels of activity are at number 5, and alcohol use is at number 9.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in the US has found that high blood pressure, to which diet, exercise and obesity are key factors, is the biggest cause of premature death in countries across the world.

And unhealthy eating overall, characterised by high consumption of red meat and sugar-sweetened beverages, contributed to more deaths than any other factor - because they contribute towards ischemic heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

The study was the most recent update on the 2010 report on the Global Burden of Disease, considered the most authoritative work on the causes of ill-health.

“There’s great potential to improve health by avoiding certain risks like smoking and poor diet as well as tackling environmental risks like air pollution," IHME director Dr Christopher Murray told The Guardian. “The challenge for policymakers will be to use what we know to guide prevention efforts and health policies.”

Data from 108 countries from 1990 to 2013 was used in the study, and the number of risk factors in premature deaths was increased from 67 to 79, to provide a broader study.

Happily, in the UK all the risk factors have decreased since 1990 - with the exception of alcohol, which has increased by 9.5% over that time. Blood pressure and cholesterol saw the biggest drop, at about 55% each.

High-income countries tended to have smoking as their number one cause of premature death. In India and elsewhere in south and south-east Asia, air pollution was a leading problem.

In Latin America and the Middle East, meanwhile, obesity came out as the biggest risk for poor health.

But sub-Saharan Africa has a different pattern of risks from the rest of the world. Its combination of childhood undernutrition, unsafe water, unsafe sex and alcohol use is unseen to the same degree elsewhere.

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