Poor diets have killed more people in the world than either smoking, alcohol or high blood pressure have, reveals a new global study published in the international medical journal, The Lancet. It states that in 2017, one in five deaths — a total of 11 million people — were due to diets that lacked enough healthy food.
More specifically, the three risk factors were low intake of fruits, low consumption of whole grains, and high intake of salt. In India, one of the 195 countries surveyed, it was found that most deaths had occurred due to insufficient intake of whole grains.
These three factors combined, said the study, are more dangerous than diets overly high in trans fats, sugary drinks, and red and processed meats.
“While traditionally all the conversation about healthy diet has been focused on lowering the intake of unhealthy food, in this study, we have shown that, at the population level, a low intake of healthy foods is the more important factor, rather than the high intake of unhealthy foods,” lead researcher Ashkan Afshin, assistant professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, told CNN.
The study defines healthy foods as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, milk, calcium, nuts and seeds, fiber, legumes or beans, omega-3 fatty acids from seafood, and the good-for-you fats found in salmon, vegetable oils and some nuts and seeds.
While low consumption of whole grains is a problem for India and other countries, Andrew Reynolds, a researcher of another Lancet study, told CNN that doesn’t mean people in these countries eat nograins. Rather, they are eating processed grains that have very little nutritional value and are high on calories. And products sold to consumers as whole grain often aren’t actually whole grains — grains that include the entire seed of a plant and the bran, the germ and the endosperm — said Reynolds.
“Whole grains are being included in ultraprocessed products that may be finely milled down and have added sodium, added free sugars and added saturated fats,” Reynolds said. “I think we all need to be aware of this and not confuse the benefits from the more intact, minimally processed whole grains with what is often advertised as whole-grain products available today.”
The new Lancet study mentions that while Uzbekistan showed the highest number of diet-related deaths, Israel had the lowest, followed by France, Spain and Japan — countries whose native cuisines share characteristics of the Mediterranean diet.
“The public needs to be aware of the critical links between diet and health and demand public action to improve the access and availability of foods that contribute to healthy diets,” Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization told CNN.
And that would require joint action between policymakers and the food industry, Corinna Hawkes, director of the Centre for Food Policy at the University of London, added.
Findings from this report do suggest that there are obstacles to eating well, mainly accessibility and affordability. But what’s more important for everyone at stake to understand, says Afshin, is that people will not need just food, they do and will need nourishment in the years to come.