Is our food killing us?

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Hippocrates

A new study in the Lancet finds that poor dietary habits are associated with a range of chronic diseases and can potentially be a major contributor to mortality across the world. This fascinating study estimates countries' eating habits to identify how often diet is shortening people's lives.

Worldwide, unhealthy eating was responsible for more than one in five deaths in 2017, or 10.9 million adults, more than any other risk factor including smoking.

Cardiovascular disease - such as strokes and heart attacks - was the biggest contributor, explaining why salt is such a problem. Too much salt raises your blood pressure, raising the risk of heart attacks and strokes. It can also lead to heart failure. Cancers and type 2 diabetes made up the rest of the diet-related deaths.

Which diets are the most dangerous? Top five:

  • Too much salt
  • Too few whole grains
  • Too little fruit
  • Too few nuts and seeds
  • Too few vegetables.

The healthy foods missing from the most diets around the world were nuts and seeds, according to the study.

Mediterranean countries, particularly France, Spain and Israel, have some of the lowest numbers of diet-related deaths in the world, whereas countries in South East, Southern and Central Asia have some of the highest, perhaps due to their changing diets and intake of soy and other salty sauces (China).

What about the UK?

Poor diet kills 90,000 people in the UK a year, or 14% of UK deaths are related to diet. That's pretty shocking although numbers have improved dramatically over the last couple of decades.

The biggest problems still are a lack of whole grains, fruit, vegetables and nuts and seeds.

The NHS recommends we eat five different portions of fruit, vegetables and fresh juice a day.

The findings of this study highlights the urgent need for coordinated global efforts to improve the quality of human diet. Researcher say, "given the complexity of dietary behaviours and the wide range of influences on diet, improving diet requires active collaboration of a variety of factors throughout the food system, along with policies targeting multiple sectors of the food system."

Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017

Read the study