Fewer people are going hungry in the developed world than ever before. Many people think that issues such as malnourishment, nutrient deficiencies, and infections have been eradicated in developed countries, especially North America. But that is far from the case – chronic diet-related diseases have actually risen, caused by poor lifestyle habits and improper eating.
The link between diet and its role in disease has been studied many times. But research on the specific dietary factors that are responsible are still relatively new. A new study published in The Lancet Journal attributed 11 million deaths worldwide to poor diets. The study spanned 27 years and analyzed 195 countries. The results showed that diets rich in processed foods, sodium, and not enough whole grains and fruits were the leading cause of death in those countries.
The country with the highest proportion of diet-related deaths was Uzbekistan, and the countries with the lowest proportion of diet-related deaths were Israel, Japan, Spain, and France. In terms of North America, The US ranked 43rd on the list of countries.
The study stated that 1 in 5 deaths were related to diet. While dietary risks were responsible for 255 million disability adjusted life years. WHO’S definition of DALY is “one lost year of healthy life”. Also considered the “measurement of the gap between current health status and an ideal health situation” (Metrics: Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY)).
15 dietary risk factors were selected in aggravating the global burden of disease. These risks were: diets high in sodium, trans fatty acids, processed meat, red meat, and diets low in legumes. What the researchers found was that people who were at risk for chronic disease were eating a smaller portion of nuts and seeds, milk, and whole grains (Afshin et al. 2019). They found people ate 12% of the recommended number of nuts and seeds – an average intake of 3 grams a day. The recommended intake of nuts and seeds is 21 g; making this drastically low! They consumed more than 10 times the recommended amount of sugary drinks; less than a quarter of the recommended amount of whole grains (29 g); and double the recommended amount of processed meat (4 g) (Afshin et al. 2019).
A possible reason as to why nuts and seeds and whole grains are so good for us is because of the amount of fiber, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals they contain. Nuts and seeds such as peanuts or pumpkin seeds contain a large amount of healthy fats such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. These healthy fats not only help to reduce inflammation, they are required for many cellular processes in our body. For example, they form membranes and are involved in cellular processes.
The amount of fiber in nuts and seeds is also a huge player in reducing heart disease. Fiber helps to regulate metabolism by increasing the rate of digestion. Fiber also lowers “bad” cholesterol in our body: LDL-cholesterol, by preventing bile salts from being reabsorbed in our small intestine. This results in more cholesterol being picked up from our arteries by “good” cholesterol: HDL-cholesterol, and being taken back to our Liver. In result, lowering our blood cholesterol!
Nuts and seeds are versatile plant-based proteins. They can be used as a snack, a topping for salads, granola, or nut milks. Due to the high proportion of healthy fats in nuts and seeds, they impart a creamy and rich texture to any dish. A great way to use pumpkin seeds for example, can be as a protein-rich topping.
We have a wonderful recipe for pumpkin seed garnished sweet potato, find it here: https://goodfoodforgood.ca/2019/01/01/fiesta-sweet-potato-bites/
Focus must shift from Restrictive Dieting
These current findings must shift the focus from restrictive dieting to promoting healthy eating habits, argue the authors of the study.
It is true that restrictive dieting, such as eliminating entire food groups, can have detrimental affects on our health and even our sanity! It is more important to eat whole and unprocessed foods, while also maintaining variety in one’s diet. Consuming enough Fiber and limiting fat and cholesterol can mitigate the risk for developing chronic diseases.
If everyone consumed half a plate’s full of fruits and veggies per day, as recommended by Health Canada, we would avoid a worldwide obesity epidemic. Consuming fruits and veggies that are minimally processed, and low in sugar and salt is the best choice according to Health Canada.
Although many diets nowadays promote eating more animal products, the lead author of the Lancet study, Dr. Walter Willet, says “red meat should be limited “to less than an ounce per day — or about a hamburger a week” (Aubrey, 2019). This is more in line with diets such as The Mediterranean diet and The Planetary diet with one focusing more on fish and nuts and seeds, and the other focusing on plant-based sources of protein such as legumes and tofu. The Planetary diet for example only allows one serving of chicken and red meat per week, 2 servings of fish, and emphasizes half our plate to be vegetables.
Another study done by a research team at Tufts University and published in the Journal of The American Medical Association investigated the relationship between 10 foods and nutrients and their relation to heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes. What they found was that almost half of all deaths in The United States in 2012 were caused by cardiometabolic diseases associated with “suboptimal eating habits”. The study also measured age, sex, ethnicity, and education.
What they found was that the highest proportion of deaths due to cardiometabolic diseases were related to excess consumption of sodium. Along with not enough nuts and seeds, omega-3 fats, whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Eating too much processed meat, sugary beverages, and red meat also raised the risk for heart disease stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes (How dietary factors influence disease risk).
Excess sodium consumption is a biproduct of eating heavily processed food, such as processed meats. On average, processed meats have more sodium and nitrates because of the curing process. Other high sources of sodium include bread, pizza, and snacks such as chips! Adding salt while cooking for example, would not be a significant source of sodium in one’s diet!
Something as easy as incorporating more legumes, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains into your diet can improve health in the long run. As per Health Canada’s guidelines, aiming for half of your plate to be veggies, and a quarter to be whole grains and meat and alternatives can help you transition to making healthier lifestyle changes. These lifestyles changes have healthy implications in the long run, and can even slow down the onset of disease.
Time to stock up on your leafy greens guys!
- Afshin, A., Sur, P. J., Fay, K. A., Cornaby, L., Ferrara, G., Salama, J. S., . . . Murray, C. J. L. (2019). Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. The Lancet, 393(10184), 1958-1972. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30041-8. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30041-8
- Aubrey, A. (2019, January 27). This Diet Is Better For the Planet. But Is It Better For You, Too? Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/01/27/688765872/this-diet-is-better-for-the-planet-but-is-it-better-for-you-too
- Gallagher, J. (2019, April 04). The diets cutting one in five lives short every year. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/health-47734296
- How dietary factors influence disease risk. (2017, March 21). Retrieved June 10, 2019, from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-dietary-factors-influence-disease-risk
- Metrics: Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY). (2014, March 11). Retrieved June 11, 2019, from https://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/metrics_daly/en/