A new study reports that poor diets—such as those with too much sodium and not enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains—may be responsible for more deaths worldwide than any other mortality risk factor, including tobacco smoking.
"Health Effects of Dietary Risks in 195 Countries, 1990–2017," published April 3 in health journal The Lancet, suggests that poor diets lead to 11 million annual deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), or the number of years a person loses due to poor health or early death.
The study states: "The largest gaps between current and optimal intake were observed for nuts and seeds, milk and whole grains, with mean consumption at 12 percent, 16 percent and 23 percent of the optimal levels. In parallel with suboptimal healthy food consumption, daily intake of all unhealthy foods and nutrients exceeded the optimal level globally. The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages was far higher than the optimal intake. Similarly, global consumption of processed meat and sodium were far above the optimal levels."
In total, the study attributes approximately 3 million deaths to excessive sodium intake, while another 3 million are attributed to the inadequate consumption of whole grains. Another estimated 2 million deaths are connected to lack of fruit intake alone.
Countries where people consume a Mediterranean-style diet (nuts, fruits and olive oil) report the lowest diet-related mortality rates, according to the study authors. Conversely, countries that largely rely on heavy carbs (breads and pastas) report the highest number of diet-related deaths. (The study authors are American university professors who specialize in nutrition and public health.)
The study states: “This study highlights the need for improving diet at the global, regional, and national level. The findings inform priorities for population-level interventions to improve diet.”
An August 2018 study, also published via Lancet, found that people with moderate, not high or low, carbohydrate intake report the lowest risk of mortality. The study, authored by several medical doctors, advocated for balanced dieting and suggested that low- and high-carb diets may shorten life expectancy by up to four years.