The results are in from a three-decade, worldwide study: junk food is a killer.

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Recently published in top tier journal The Lancet, the results of the Global Burden of Disease study are clear: dietary factors are responsible for as many as 20% of all deaths worldwide.

The Study

The study, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), was conducted from 1990-2017 in 195 different countries. The goal was to gauge the health effect of dietary risks.

Dietary risks and diet are preventable risk factors in a wide variety of diseases. This means that our diet is one thing that we have control over and that we can manage in order to lower our risk or even eliminate our risk of such non-contagious diseases and conditions as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.

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The study used a comparative risk assessment approach to estimate the number of deaths that could be attributed to a selection of dietary risk factors (like problematic food ingredients such as trans fats or sugars) in adults, aged 25 and older. The study also considered the intake of levels of each dietary factor and the effect of size of the dietary factor on disease endpoint.

What Foods Are the Biggest Culprits?

What this means is that the study takes a wide view of what high intake of sodium, low intake of whole grains and not eating enough fresh fruit mean in terms of disease risk.

These three elements (high sodium, low whole grains, and not enough fresh fruit) were found to be the leading dietary risks for death and shortened lifespans: more than trans fats, sugary drinks and red/processed meats.

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The findings show that 11 million deaths and 255 million shortened lifespans were directly attributable to poor diet. These numbers mean that one in five deaths in the period covered was attributable to poor diet, and another 250 million people lived shortened, unhealthy lives because of junk food that is high in sodium and low in whole grains, vegetables and whole fruit.

As one study scientist notes, “This study affirms what many have thought for many years: that poor diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor in the world.”

These deaths, according to the study, fell into three main categories: death due to cardiovascular (heart) disease, cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

What Does This Mean?

The authors note that the diet needs to be recognized as a significant factor in worldwide health management and care. Since junk food contributes to a wide range of chronic diseases, people all over the world will live longer and happier, healthier lives if they get the message of reducing the amount of sodium they eat and increasing the number of whole grains, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

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Getting the word out will take a coordinated global effort to improve diet, scientists say, not only in education but also in remaking the policies and system that help determine which foods are available to people around the world.

Governments and agencies may also have to adjust their programs. Many (such as in the United States) have focused on getting the word out on reducing the amount of sugar and fat in diets. This study, however, says that the message needs to focus more on reducing sodium and increasing high-fiber foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

How Can You Change Your Diet Now?

We can all take this information to heart and adjust our diets according to the examples offered in the study. The IHME provides a guideline called “Healthy Eating Saves Lives” that recommends:

  • 200 to 300 grams of fruits per day (the equivalent of three small apples)
  • 100 to 150 grams of whole grains a day (the equivalent of five slices of 100% whole wheat bread)
  • 16 to 25 grams of nuts and seeds a day (the equivalent of 8 to 13 walnut halves)
  • 290 to 430 grams of vegetables per day (the equivalent of 5 to 7 medium carrots)

Finally, the study says that while we all take in about 5,600 milligrams of sodium (salt) per day, we need to reduce that amount to no more than 3,000 mg per day.

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We often hear diet advice, but this study, decades-long and worldwide, offers us, literally, food for thought on how to stay healthy!