In: Nutrition

84,000 deaths: when eating is bad for your health

I’ve written a number of times on how what we eat affects our health.  From speaking to clients, family and friends, much of it is not news to people.  We know that some foods are better for us than others, but we are complicated creatures and for whatever reasons, we continue to choose to eat across the food quality.

There are times when our eating habits make a seismic shift one way or the other, perhaps due to a health scare or what hits the media.  Think back to Edwina Curry’s egg warning in 1988, mad cow disease in 1990 or, more recently, cancer risks associated with processed meat.

How diet choices affect how long we live for

Research published in The Lancet in 2019 looked at 15 global dietary risk factors and their impact on various adult populations.  Specifically, they looked at:

  • The proportion of non-communicable disease in a population which could be attributed to the 15 dietary risk factors.
  • How many deaths followed as a result.
  • How many years people were impacted by disease, including living with the disease and dying early.
  • The optimum level of intake for each risk factor.

I’ve prepared three charts to summarise the results as I see them.  The key headline is that an estimated 84,135 deaths in the UK in 2017 were from diseases attributable to dietary choices. That’s 15% of all deaths in that year.

The three top dietary risk factors in Western Europe are:

  1. Low intake of whole grains
  2. Low intake of nuts and seeds
  3. High intake of sodium

The research paper is open to all to read at The Lancet.  It’s titled “Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017” and covers most of the planet.  Some statistics are only published at regional (Western Europe) level; some supplemental statistics are at the UK level.

The charts below have been prepared my me and are not part of the research paper.

Dietary risk factors, and how far from optimal intake we are in Western Europe

Dietary risk factors ranked in order of risk
Data from "Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017". The Lancet, May 11, 2019

The 15 risk factors are ranked from highest (#1, low intake of whole grains) to lowest (#15, high consumption of red meat) based on Western European data.

The bars represent the proportion of the optimum intake consumed on average.

  • Green bars represent under-consumption
  • Blue bars represent over consumption

By way of example, the highest dietary risk to those in Western Europe is from eating too few whole grains.  On average, people are only eating 10% of the amount suggested as optimal for health.

Consumption of sweetened beverages (which excludes fruit juices) is 27 times higher than that suggested as optimal.  This is in part due to the optimal amount of such drinks being very low (3g per day) given their poor nutritional content.

Interestingly, the research complements commonly stated ways to improve our diet, namely eat more whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruit and veg, and cut down on salt.  Put another way, move the balance from highly processed to minimally processed foods.

The recent health scare with red meat is put in to context as this risk is ranked 15 out of 15, although reducing processed meat consumption is more important for improving health (ranked 10 out of 15).

84,135 peopled in the UK died from a disease associated with their dietary choices in 2017

Deaths from food choices
Data from "Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017". The Lancet, May 11, 2019

15% of all deaths in the UK in 2017 were from non-communicable diseases which could be attributed to dietary risk factors.  Most of these were from cardiovascular disease (CVD, such as heart disease and strokes).

Deaths from type 2 diabetes, a disease which for many people can be managed through dietary interventions, claimed over 1,300 lives.

Cancers affected by diet included cancers of the lips, oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, lung, colon and rectum.

Number of years sufferers were affected by a disease attributed to dietary risk factors

Years of suffering from food choices
Data from "Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017". The Lancet, May 11, 2019

The number of years a person is affected by disease is the total of the years spent with the disease and any years that person dies prematurely.  In the UK, of all the years people were affected with non-communicable diseases, 8.8% were as a result of dietary choices.  That’s a total of almost 1.8 million years.

That doesn’t mean people were incapacitated all that time, nor does it mean that everyone died early.  It’s a measure of the time impact of disease on people’s potential full life.

The chart on the right shows the proportion of time spent with, or dying early from, a specific disease that can be attributed to food choices.  For example, of all the years people spent with or died early from CVD, 46.6% can be attributed to dietary risk factors.

What does that mean for each of us?

My rationale for posting these charts was to encourage people to take steps to improve their outlook by improving their diet.

Not being ill and dying early are only two aspects of life which can be improved through better nutrition.  You can also expect more energy, better stress management, being more physically able to live life, better sleep, fewer low-level illnesses, better brain function, and the list goes on.  It’s a wonder then that we don’t all prioritise eating healthily.

I posted an article in the last week debunking myths about dieting (or “eating” as I prefer to call it) as a means to motivate people to take the first step towards a healthier future.  It talked about the need to relearn what we know about nutrition.  These charts hopefully help you kick-start the relearning process.

Are you ready to thrive?