Poor diet ranks 'biggest contributor’ to early deaths worldwide; smoking, air pollution as other high-ranking global burdens

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US Dietary Guidelines Recommend Diet Rich In Vegetables, Fruits And Nut And Less Meat
An employee places vegetables at Crimean Farmstead Reuters

A new worldwide analysis finds the emerging impact of poor diet as the biggest contributor to early deaths in 108 countries across the globe, followed by smoking and air pollution as high-ranking risk factors. The leading authorities on the global disease say bad diet contributed to global deaths with high blood pressure and consumption of red meat and sugar-sweetened beverage as responsible for 21 percent of deaths implicated by foods.

The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, or IMHE, in the US reported that people across the globe are commonly at risk of death due to the combination of dietary factors, like eating too few fruit and vegetables, nuts and whole grains to too much sodium and cholesterol. Unhealthy eating was found to contribute to more deaths than any other factor like smoking, causing ischemic heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

For the new study, published in the Lancet medical journal, the researchers analysed 14 dietary risk factors, with the overall result showing high blood pressure mostly contributes to early deaths around the world. The data was collected from 108 countries from 1990 up to 2013.

The latest study was the first update of the first Global Burden of Disease study, published in 2010, recognised as the most authoritative work on the causes of ill-health. The findings cover half of the global deaths and more than a third of disabling ill-health to preventable risks.

The researchers suggest for more actions from the government in each countries to aid the prevention of deaths and ill-health caused by the health risk factors. A clear indication for governments to plan for prevention programmes focused at risk factor modification has been provided by the comprehensive assessment of risk factors presented in the study, they added.

“There’s great potential to improve health by avoiding certain risks like smoking and poor diet as well as tackling environmental risks like air pollution,” said IHME Director Dr Christopher Murray. “The challenge for policymakers will be to use what we know to guide prevention efforts and health policies.”

The team added that human-induced pollution is also a major risk. Air pollution caused the seventh highest number of deaths around the world, and indoor fumes from cooking are in eighth place.

The risk-factors were found to vary in each country, such as in South and Southeast Asia, people are at high risks because of household air pollution. In India, unsafe water and childhood undernutrition were found to be the leading risks.  

In countries like Latin America and the Middle East, obesity is the biggest risk for poor health. And in Russia, health was greatly affected by alcohol, and smoking tops in many high-income countries, including the UK.

But a different pattern of risks from the rest of the world was found in the Sub-Saharan Africa. A toxic combination of childhood undernutrition, unsafe water and sanitation, unsafe sex and alcohol use all ranked as the leading health-risk factors to the people.

The researchers called for governments around the world to act on their findings. “We need to focus on minimising risks clustering from childhood to adulthood, such as poor diet and low physical activity, to reduce the burden our health system and ensure that we all live long and healthy lives,” said Dr Ivy Shiue, senior researcher at Northumbria University and a co-author of the study.

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