Around a fifth of all the deaths in the world can be attributed to unhealthy eating, which is a major driver of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
The analysis comparing diet, deaths and disease rates across 195 countries found that bad dietary habits are increasingly present, because of changing habits leading to more meat eating and fewer vegetable staples, along with proliferating fast food.
In 2017 poor diet was responsible for 11 million deaths, or 22 per cent of the total recorded worldwide. In comparison, smoking tobacco was associated with eight million deaths, and high blood pressure was responsible for just over 10 million.
A breakdown of the analysis showed that low intake of whole grains and fruits, and high consumption of sodium – found in salt – accounted for more than half of diet-related deaths.
The rest were attributed to high consumption of red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened drinks, and other unhealthy foods including those containing trans-fatty acids.
The vast majority of diet-related deaths were due to heart disease, followed by cancers and Type 2 diabetes.
Poor diet also caused a huge burden of disability, the researchers reported in The Lancet journal.
“Poor diet is an equal opportunity killer,” lead scientist Dr Ashkan Afshin, from the University of Washington, said.
“We are what we eat and risks affect people across a range of demographics, including age, gender, and economic status.”
Rather than the issue being the high rates of junk food, the authors point out the problem of the “low consumption of healthy foods”.
“Dietary policies focusing on promoting healthy eating can have a more beneficial effect than policies advocating against unhealthy foods,” Dr Afshin added.
The diets most closely linked to death were those high in sodium, and low in whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds and omega-3 fatty acids, the study found. Each of these factors accounted for more than 2 per cent of all deaths globally.
US co-author Professor Walter Willett, from Harvard University, said the findings supported recent research on heart and artery disease that advocated replacing meat with plant protein.
A “drastic” reduction in meat consumption was recently highlighted by another group, the EAT commission, who said western nations’ intake of burgers, sausages and other red meat needs to fall by 80 per cent to protect the planet and health.
“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 said.
Dr Anna Diaz Font, from the World Cancer Research Fund, said: “This study is very important as it demonstrates the major role that diet plays in the health of individuals and populations.
“Our own research shows that having a poor diet increases the risk of cancer and obesity – further increasing the risk of 12 different types of cancer.
“We call on governments to implement evidence-informed policies that encourage people to make healthier choices by making the healthy option easiest.”
Additional reporting by PA
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