Skip to main content

Unhealthy diet habits cause the majority of deaths

- and people are misguided

Unhealthy diet habits cause the majority of deathsUnhealthy eating habits account for one in five deaths globally and are now considered the single most life-threatening risk factor. In most countries, people could reap a lot of health benefits and live longer by eating healthier diets, but it would be wrong to hold each individual responsible because there is an urgent need for international collaboration that involves politicians, agriculture, the food industry, and the health sector, according to a new study (The Global Burden of Disease) that is published in The Lancet. An earlier and larger Czech study published in the science journal Nutrients calls for a paradigm shift with regard to diet recommendations, claiming that the scaremongering about saturated fat and cholesterol should never have been introduced.

The new diet study, The Global Burden of Disease, includes 195 countries and covers the period between 1990 and 2017. According to this study, every fifth death is related to unhealthy diets and accompanying diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
With regard to international diet recommendations, experts have been particularly focused on telling people to avoid eating too much sugar, salt, cholesterol, and trans-fatty acids. Now, they tell us to make sure to eat more of the nutritious foods like fish, whole-grain, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. But because unhealthy food choices and sweetened beverages are available everywhere, and because it can be difficult to read and understand food labels, scientists call for international collaboration that involves politicians, agriculture, the food industry, and the health sector. Otherwise, we will never see an end to the unhealthy diets and the increasing food addiction that is associated with that much disease and death that one can easily refer to it as a global epidemic that is completely out of control.

Unhealthy diets and food addiction combined cause more deaths than alcohol abuse, smoking, and car accidents

Global variations

The scientists behind the study looked closer at the 15 most common food items in the 195 countries included. What they did, more specifically, was to combine and analyze data from a number of epidemiological studies to find the relation between diet and disease. The researchers looked at diets with low intake of whole grain, fish, vegetables, fruit, legumes, seeds, kernels, fiber and dairy products and diets with high intake of red meat, processed meat, soft drinks, sweetened beverages, trans-fatty acid, and salt.
At the end of the study in 2017, the scientists could see that none of the chosen countries had optimal diets, and that every fifth death (approximately 11 million lives) was a result of unhealthy eating habits. They say that too much salt, too little wholegrain, and too little fruit and vegetables caused half of the diet-related deaths.
The study revealed a tenfold difference between the country with the highest number of diet-related deaths and the country with the fewest. Countries like Israel, France, Spain, Japan, and Andorra had the lowest number of diet-related deaths, while places like Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, China, and India had the most. Great Britain came in as number 23 on the list. Sweden was number 25, and the United States was number 43 right after Rwanda and Nigeria.

Statistical uncertainty

The researchers explain that there is a lot of different data that increases the statistical uncertainty. For instance, populations eat different diets depending on the climate, vegetation, and animal life. A large part of the world’s population does not consume dairy products due to lactose intolerance, and people get along fine without these foods. So the Japanese can expect to live a long time by eating traditional diets with a lot of fish and vegetables. People from Iceland also belong to the populations that can expect to live long, although their traditional diet has very little fruit and vegetables in it. On the other hand, they consume quite a lot of fish.
The study also looks at the intake of salt, which is a specific risk factor in China, Japan, and Thailand. Other studies, however, suggest that salt is not harmful. What makes it dangerous, the studies say, is if your daily sodium consumption exceeds five grams and you also get too little potassium, which helps regulate the electrolyte balance.
The agricultural soil also matters. The soil in Europe, for instance, contains very little selenium, and American grain contains far more selenium than Danish grain does. Selenium is a trace element with a host of essential functions, and through decades, Danish farmers have given supplements of selenium to their livestock as a way of preventing an array of serious deficiency diseases.
The sun, which is our primary source of vitamin D, is also vital for our health. In the Northern hemisphere, however, it is only possible to synthesize vitamin D in our skin during the summer period where the sun sits sufficiently high in the sky, so people easily become deficient of vitamin D in this part of the world.

Official dietary guidelines do not work as expected

The many diet-related diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases indicate that the existing dietary guidelines are not working quite as expected. Therefore, science calls for new strategies to improve diets all over the world.
In January 2019, The Lancet published a report about the first scientific goal for healthy diets and sustainable food production. The report involves data from the before-mentioned study (The Global Burden of Disease) to make an assessment of how far away the world’s populations are from the optimal diet. The authors behind the diet study acknowledge, however, that it has certain limitations, simply because factors such as overweight, smoking, stress, medicine, and environmental toxins can also cause health problems.
In addition, it is a huge challenge to try to change people’s diets because of factors like feelings, habits, and financial status. Therefore, politicians, the agriculture and food industry, and the health sector should all be included to help make it easier and less expensive to eat a healthy diet and to avoid being tempted by unnecessary ads for the wrong food choices. The scientists say that it is an international problem that must be solved across country borders, but as long as scientists are unable to agree on the exact definition of a healthy diet, there is a challenge.

High carbohydrate intake and lack of omega-3 increases your risk of cardiovascular disease

In in earlier and far more comprehensive study, a team of Czech scientists studied which global diet factors contribute the most to deaths and cardiovascular disease. The scientists collected diet data from 158 countries during the years 1993-2011. The data included consumption of 60 different food items such as grain products, meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, fruit and vegetables, different plant oils, soft drinks, sugar, alcohol, tea, and coffee. They also calculated the total calorie intake from carbohydrate, protein and fats from animal and vegetable sources.
It turned out that the single diet factor that came with the highest risk of developing cardiovascular disease was high intake of carbohydrates, primarily in the form of sugar and grain products such as wheat. In contrast, the scientists observed that total intake of animal fat, animal protein, and vegetable protein was associated with a lowered risk of developing cardiovascular disease. In other words, the more protein and animal fat is in your diet, the lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and dying of blood clots caused by atherosclerosis.
Having said that, there is a limit to how much protein we should ingest. The scientists did also discover that too much omega-6 from plant oils in combination with too little omega-3 from oily fish increased the risk of elevated blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases.
The Czech study is published in the science journal Nutrients, and in the beginning the researchers write about how the widespread warnings against cholesterol are based on unsustainable data.

A request for the health authorities

As the Czech scientists see it, the warnings about saturated fat and cholesterol should never have been introduced, and they say that we need a paradigm shift with regard to diet recommendations and the underlying causes of cardiovascular disease.


The Lancet. Globally, on in five deaths are associated with poor diet. ScienceDaily, April 3, 2019

Andrew Mente et al. Urinary sodium excretion, blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and mortality: a community-level prospective epidemiological cohort study. The Lancet, 2018

Grasgruber P, Cacek J Hrazdira E et al. Global correlates of cardiovascular risk: a comparison of 158 countries. Nutrients 2018 Mar 26

Gerad D. Jones. Selenium deficiency risk predicted to increase under future climate change. PNAS 2017

D-vitamin behov og mangel I Danmark 2009. Biokemisk forening.

  • Created on .