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Poor diet kills more people around world than smoking, new research shows

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 4/04/2019 Katy Clifton
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A poor diet is the world’s deadliest health risk and kills more people than smoking, a study has found.

Researchers in the US found eating unhealthily accounts for a fifth of all deaths, claiming more lives than smoking because of its links to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

More than 130 scientists compared dietary habits to rate of death and disease in 195 countries and found that in 2017 poor diet was responsible for 11 million deaths – 22 per cent of the total recorded.

A breakdown of the analysis showed that low intake of whole grains and fruits, and high consumption of sodium – found in salt – accounted for more than half of diet-related deaths.

The rest were attributed to high consumption of red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened drinks, and other unhealthy foods including those containing trans-fatty acids.

The vast majority of diet-related deaths were due to heart disease, followed by cancers and Type 2 diabetes.

Poor diet also caused a huge burden of disability, the researchers reported in The Lancet journal.

Smoking tobacco was associated with eight million deaths.

a hand holding a piece of paper: Smoking tobacco was associated with eight million deaths in 2017 (PA Wire/PA Images) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Smoking tobacco was associated with eight million deaths in 2017 (PA Wire/PA Images)

Lead scientist Dr Ashkan Afshin, from the University of Washington, US, said: "Poor diet is an equal opportunity killer.

"We are what we eat and risks affect people across a range of demographics, including age, gender, and economic status."

He added: "We are highlighting the importance of low consumption of healthy foods as compared to the greater consumption of unhealthy foods.

"Dietary policies focusing on promoting healthy eating can have a more beneficial effect than policies advocating against unhealthy foods."

The diets most closely linked to death were those high in sodium, and low in whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds and omega-3 fatty acids, the study found. Each of these factors accounted for more than 2% of all deaths globally.

US co-author Professor Walter Willett, from Harvard University, said the findings supported recent research on heart and artery disease that advocated replacing meat with plant protein.

"Adoption of diets emphasising soy foods, beans and other healthy plant sources of protein will have important benefits for both human and planetary health," he said.

Dr Anna Diaz Font, from the World Cancer Research Fund, said: "This study is very important as it demonstrates the major role that diet plays in the health of individuals and populations.

"Our own research shows that having a poor diet increases the risk of cancer and obesity - further increasing the risk of 12 different types of cancer.

"We call on governments to implement evidence-informed policies that encourage people to make healthier choices by making the healthy option easiest."

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said "more must be done to reduce the burden of diet-related disease".

She said the UK's challenge to the food industry to reduce sugar from everyday foods was "a clear step in the right direction", adding "we want to see that ambition from other countries".

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