How healthy is your diet? Globally, research has linked poor diet to an estimated one in five deaths

After tracking trends in the consumption of 15 dietary factors from 1990 to 2017, in 195 countries, Global Burden of Disease study researchers found that people in almost every region of the world could benefit from rebalancing their diets.

The study estimates that globally, one in five deaths (equivalent to 11 million deaths) is associated with poor diet, and diet contributes to a range of chronic diseases in people around the world.

In 2017, more deaths were caused by diets with too low amounts of foods such as whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds than by diets with high levels of items like fatty or fried foods (mainly trans-fats), sugary drinks and red and processed meats.

“This study affirms what many have thought for several years – that poor diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor” – Dr Christopher Murray

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“This study affirms what many have thought for several years – that poor diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor in the world,” says study author Dr Christopher Murray, Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, USA.

“While sodium, sugar, and fat have been the focus of policy debates over the past two decades, our assessment suggests the leading dietary risk factors are a high intake of sodium, or low intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, and vegetables. The paper also highlights the need for comprehensive interventions to promote the production, distribution and consumption of healthy foods across all nations.”

Diet, disease and death

The study looked at 15 dietary elements – diets low in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, milk, fibre, calcium, seafood omega-3 fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats, and diets high in red meat, processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fatty acids and sodium, in processed and fast foods.

Overall in 2017, an estimated 11 million deaths were attributable to poor diet. Diets high in sodium, low in whole grains, and low in fruit together accounted for more than half of all diet-related deaths globally in 2017.

The causes of these deaths included 10 million deaths from cardiovascular disease, 913 000 from cancer, and almost 339 000 from type-2 diabetes. Deaths related to diet have increased from eight million in 1990, largely due to an increase in the population and population ageing.

No region eats an optimal diet

The research found no region ate the optimal amount of all 15 dietary factors, and not one dietary factor was eaten in the right amount by all 21 regions of the world.

Some regions did manage to eat some dietary elements in the right amounts. For example, intake of vegetables was optimal in central Asia, of seafood omega-3 fatty acids in the high-income Asia Pacific, and of legumes in the Caribbean, tropical Latin America, South Asia, and western and eastern sub-Saharan Africa.

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Where are we falling short?

The largest shortfalls in optimal intake were seen for nuts and seeds, milk and whole grains.

On average, the world only ate 12% of the recommended amount of nuts and seeds (around three grams average intake per day, compared with 21 grams recommended per day).

In addition, the global diet included 16% of the recommended amount of milk (71 grams average intake per day, compared with 435 grams recommended per day) and about a quarter (23%) of the recommended amount of whole grains (29 grams average intake per day, compared with 125 grams recommended per day).

Too much of a bad thing

The largest excesses were seen for sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meat and sodium.

The study found that the world drank around 10 times the recommended amount of sugar-sweetened beverages (49 grams average intake, compared with three grams recommended).

The global diet included almost double (90% more) the recommended range of processed meat (around four grams average intake per day, compared with two grams recommended per day), and 86% more sodium (around six grams average intake per day, compared with three grams recommended per day).

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How in the world should we be eating?

In January 2019, The Lancet published the EAT-Lancet Commission, which provides the first scientific targets for a healthy diet from a sustainable food production system.

This report used 2016 data from the Global Burden of Disease study to estimate how far the world is from the healthy diet proposed.

How the world should eat: The universal healthy reference diet

Source: The Lancet via

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