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What We Aren’t Eating Is Killing Us

Bad diet choices lead to more deaths worldwide than any other risk factor, including smoking and obesity, according to the Global Burden of Disease study reported in the April 2019 issue of The Lancet. The problem is not only that people around the globe are eating too many unhealthy foods; it’s also that people aren’t eating enough nutritious options. In 2017, there were 11 million deaths in 195 countries from health issues attributable to dietary factors (those issues include heart attack and cancer). Authors of the Lancet study concluded that more deaths were associated with inadequate portions of healthful foods—like vegetables, nuts and whole grains—than were related to eating too many foods with poor nutritional value, such as sugary drinks, refined grains and processed meats.

In terms of lowest diet-related death rates, the United States ranked 43rd—after Rwanda and Nigeria. Traditionally, an emphasis on lowering consumption of nutritionally poor foods and drinks has dominated the conversation about healthy eating for disease prevention. This study shows that, at a population level, health officials should place more stress on getting people to load up their plates with healthier foods and focus less on what not to eat. That is going to require a coordinated effort between policymakers and food growers—a significant feat that won’t happen overnight.

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