Instead of focusing solely on disease when it comes to risk factors of death, a new study suggests diet is just as important.
According to a recent study published in The Lancet on Wednesday, globally, the number of people eating healthy food and getting enough nutrients was suboptimal in 2017.
The study found globally, one in five deaths (that’s about 11 million deaths) in 2017 were linked to poor diet, with cardiovascular disease being the largest contributor, followed by cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
The study, which looked at 195 countries over a 27-year period is part of the annual Global Burden of Disease report, where researchers track premature death and disability from more than 350 diseases and injuries in those countries, CNN reported.
READ MORE: 5 physical signs your diet needs to change
“In many countries, poor diet now causes more deaths than tobacco smoking and high blood pressure,” lead author Ashkan Afshin told the news site.
“While traditionally, all the conversation about healthy diet has been focused on lowering the intake of unhealthy food, in this study, we have shown that, at the population level, a low intake of healthy foods is the more important factor, rather than the high intake of unhealthy foods.”
Afshi, who is also an assistant professor at University of Washington, added there were 15 dietary risk factors and the highest ones included eating too much salt and not eating enough whole grains, fruits and nuts and seeds. Some of the risk factors lower on the risk scale included too much processed meat, red meat, trans fat and sweetened drinks.
According to the study, the proportion of diet-related deaths was highest in Uzbekistan and the lowest in Israel. The U.K. ranked 23rd, the U.S. 43rd, China 140th, and India 118th. A majority of countries were grouped in categories like tropical Latin America, Southeast Asia, Oceania and southern sub-Saharan Africa. Canada was part of a grouping of “high-income North America.”
CNN noted in Asia, there was a high consumption of salt, while in Mexico, there was a lack of nuts and seeds in people’s diets.
This is ‘not surprising’
Author and registered dietitian Abbey Sharp of Abbey’s Kitchen said it’s not surprising poor diet was a leading cause of death around the world.
“While I do think it’s hard to tease a lot of these risk factors apart in a lot of cases (that’s the challenge of doing nutrition or health-related population research), we have decades of quality research suggesting that what we put or don’t put into our bodies has an enormous impact on disease, longevity and quality of life.”
And when it comes to risk factors like salt, Sharp said most of us are unaware of how much salt is actually in our food.
“Most of the food we’re eating is no longer cooked from scratch,” she explained. “If we were to make all of our meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks — the way our grandparents did, we would be able to visibly see what salt we’re adding in food preparation and at the table.”
But it’s not just salt that dietitians are concerned about.
“Most of the salt in our diet is coming from packaged foods, processed foods, or fast foods where salt is not only added for flavour, but for preservation purposes,” she continued. “Even the seemingly ‘healthy choices’ in restaurants or the store-bought prepared meals can be loaded with sodium. Food doesn’t have to taste ‘salty’ to have a lot of salt.”
Why aren’t we eating enough fruits, whole grains and nuts?
Health Canada recommends making at least half your plate vegetables and fruits on a daily basis, and varying the type of fruits and veggies you eat from berries to leafy greens to cabbage.
To eat more veggies in general, try pre-bagged veggies for a quick salad or stir-fry or serve raw vegetables like peppers and cucumbers with dinner or lunch. For fruit, replace sugary desserts with fruit salad or oranges, and add frozen fruit to baking.
“I think it’s largely to do with convenience again,” Sharp explained. “Typically, whole grains, fruits, veggies and nuts and seeds are not found in abundance the same way that refined grains like corn, oils and highly-processed meats are.”
She said these foods tend to be a bit more expensive, and restaurants’ or food manufacturers’ “bottom line,” often skimping on some of these more nutritious ingredients in favour of cheaper filler carbs, salt and fat.
Tips to eat healthier
But eating healthier on a daily basis is hard with our busy, stressful and fast lives. Prepping a grocery list and meal planning are good ways to have more control over what you eat, but Sharp said it’s also about focusing on what we need to eat more of.
“Ultimately, by including more of those whole grains, fruits and veggies into our diet, we’re going to edge out some of the more processed, high sodium, low nutrient foods,” she said. “But I find that talking about what to eat more of rather than eat less of is more approachable and palatable to most Canadians.”
Start by including one new whole grain, fruit or veggie, into our meals or snacks. She added by default, we will cut back on other less healthy options. Over time, this can become a habit.
“I think that we really need to invest more pride and love in what we put into our bodies. Food should not just be seen as fuel. We need to prioritize shopping, cooking, and eating food as part of our daily routine, which will reduce our reliance on overly processed, high salt, low nutrition convenience foods.”