Poor Diet Kills More People Than Even Smoking

Poor Diet Kills More People Than Even Smoking


This startling claim is in a recent report from The Lancet – 3 million deaths from too much sodium aka salt, another 3 million from a lack of whole grains and a further two million from lack of fruit in the diet.  If this is to be believed then our ability to retire early with health to enjoy it could be severely compromised by poor diet. In my previous article on retirement planning we touched on this but it appears that looking at what we are putting in our mouth is even more important than I realized.  Put simply poor diet kills if we are to believe the research and why wouldn’t we?  Even if the research isn’t 100% accurate, it would be a shame to put all your hard work to achieve an early retirement at risk simply because of the consequences of a poor diet.

This research clearly confirms what health professional (and our mothers) have been saying for years.  A balanced healthy diet is the way to go. I’m not for a moment suggesting that we all ditch meat and salt but we do need to get the balance, the proportions, right if we want to live well and enjoy the retirement we’ve worked so hard for.

Seems sensational so how did they come up with that???

Well it’s all very scientific and the official name for the report is “Health Effects of Dietary Risks in 195 Countries: Findings from the Global Burden of Diseases Study 2017”.  It’s an impressive piece of research which studies adults 25 years old and older across 195 countries. One of the limitations of previous studies was the potential for geographic factors to influence the results i.e the result is tainted because of something specific to a particular country or region.  The lead author, Ashkan Afshin, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, identified 15 food and nutrient groups which could contribute to early death.  The data collected went back as far as 1980 and provided a “comprehensive re-analysis” of  the relationship between diet and development and evaluates the trends in the burden of disease attributable to diet from 1990 to 2017.

All this boils down to looking at a vast range of data across most of the world to identify where diet was a major factor in diseases causing death or significantly shortening life expectancy.

Trends Identified in the Research

To my simple mid it appears that the global results show that we have our dietary proportions almost the opposite of what they should be.  The figure below shows that in 2017 the proportion of “healthy” food in our diet was below the guidelines in every category. These foods include nuts/seeds, whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.

Conversely the amount on known “unhealthy” food – red & processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fats and sodium (salt) far exceeded the daily recommended amounts.

Lancet Report Dietary Risk Factors

The study showed some other general factors which we probably all know intuitively but it’s nice to have some hard evidence to back up the hype.  Key amongst these were:

  • Men generally eat more than women – big surprise
  • Consumption was generally higher among middle-aged adults (50–69 years) and lowest among young adults (25–49 years) with a few exceptions
  • The highest intake of sugar-sweetened beverages was observed among young adults and showed a decreasing trend with age.
  • High income North Americans eat the most processed meat
  • The highest red meat consumption was in Australasia followed by Latin America.

So What Does All This Mean?

The bald fact is that these dietary factors seems to have caused about 11 million deaths Unhealthy Salty Foodand reduced the life expectancy of many more of us.  Now you don’t drop dead from your diet but these factors were direct causes of death from the big three; cardiovascular disease (10 million), cancers (about 900,000) and Type 2 diabetes (about 340,000).  Looking at it another way, about 5 million people died from diet related causes before they reached 70 years old, well below the average life expectancy.

There are also some regional league tables that you don’t want to be on the top of:

  • the highest age-standardized rates of all diet-related deaths – Oceania
  • the highest rates of diet-related cardiovascular disease deaths – Central Asia and Oceania
  • Oceania again features are having one of the highest rates of diet related Type 2 diabetes deaths.

Although not part of the study, I do wonder if the mortality rate once a disease is contracted is partly due to the standard of healthcare available.  North America and parts of Europe feature in the poor consumption statistics but are not similarly represented in the death stats for example.

One paragraph in the report summarized the issue succinctly:

“High intake of sodium was the leading dietary risk for deaths and DALYs in China, Japan, and Thailand. Low intake of whole grains was the leading dietary risk factor for deaths and DALYs in the USA, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia, Egypt, Germany, Iran, and Turkey. In Bangladesh, low intake of fruits was the leading dietary risk associated with deaths and DALYs. In Mexico, low intake of nuts and seeds ranked first for diet-related deaths.”

(DALYs = disability-adjusted life year is a measure of overall disease burden, expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.)

How does this affect you?

The statistics all stack up and it’s hard to argue with the research.  It’s easy to brush off averages however, if you happen to be one of the people with diabetes or heart issues, these dietary factors may well ring true for you personally.  Certainly as you plan for the retirement Healthy Food for Retirementyou’re wanting with the people you want to share it with, these figures provide some food for thought (pardon the pun lol) about some changes that may need to be made or at least to confirm you’re on the right track.

The focus of much of the information on diets and eating properly has been salt, sugar and fat.  While this remains at least partially true it is becoming clearer that not only do we need to consider what’s in our food but also what we’re not eating e.g nuts & seeds, whole grains and, generally speaking, more legumes and vegetables.  It’s easy to blame all this on the policy makers and look to your government, wherever you are, to solve this for you but the reality is that most of this is personal choice. For all of us there will be something we can do in our daily lives that can help address these trends for our own benefit.

I hope you like this summary of the latest research from The Lancet.  If you have a question or comment please leave it below and I’ll respond as soon as I can – usually within 24 hours. If you like what you’ve seen or think it may be worthwhile for someone you know, please share it by forwarding them the link or sharing it using the buttons below.

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12 thoughts on “Poor Diet Kills More People Than Even Smoking”

  1. Brilliant! It’s my passion to help people prevent chronic disease through nutrition. It’s so fascinating when you look around the world and see pockets of populations where certain diseases prevail. So much could be prevented with better education around this subject.

    Keep up the great work!

    • I couldn’t agree more. If we can at least come to understand what’s causing some of these issues we are then in a position to find a sustainable solution.

  2. Excellent information! Thanks for sharing! My goal is to help others manage their weight and find healthier food choices. You are right, foods people are eating are so unhealthy! Today’s society is so fast paced, therefore diets are poor. Grab and go, always in a hurry, eat Fast Food, whatever is easiest and fastest. People don’t generally stop long enough to consider what it’s doing for their health.
    I appreciate you bringing this to our attention.
    It’s a big deal that needs to be taken seriously.

    Best wishes,

  3. Hi Mike, thanks for sharing such a solid post with persuasive statistic data. Totally agree that balanced and healthy diet will boost people’s well-being and prolong the life expectancy. Vegetables, meat, nut, fruits and dairy products etc. should be intaken balanced. And equally important, we should take regular exercises to maintain a good body to absorb the nutrients well.

    • Couldn’t agree more about the exercise. I’m actually working on another article about the benefits of Tai Chi as a gentle way of getting some exercise and improving balance and flexibility for us oldies. I’ll be interested in your comments on that after I finish it.

  4. Hey Mike,

    This is quite a startling report and as you rightly said the onus is on us to make sure to consider what we are not eating. Also, don’t you think the obsession towards size zero figure or 6 pack abs is driving people nuts. People starve to fit in branded clothes – I hope all these people read this post and take immediate actions. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • I’ve never had a 6- pack body and never will. I’m very comfortable in my own skin physically and emotionally and yes most people would be a lot happier not chasing these arbitrary stereotypes.

  5. Hi Mike,

    This was an interesting, and well written read. Eating a balanced diet throughout our lives is one of the most important factors to living a healthy life. It’s great that you are making people approaching retirement more aware of how the quality of their life is within their control.

    We’ll definitely be checking in on your future posts.

    Rodney and Shelley

    • Thanks Rodney and Shelley for commenting. I agree that retiring even with the passive income you want is a bit pointless if you aren’t healthy enough to enjoy it. As you say, a fair bit of that is within our own control.

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