A poor diet may be killing you softly

A poor diet has been described as the biggest contributor to early death worldwide. 

Even though most of us know how a poor diet can negatively impact health and longevity, many have still been shocked by the findings a study recently published in the Lancet journal¹. The study led by Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), used longitudinal data (1990-2013) from the Global Burden of Disease project, and included 188 countries worldwide. Over 79 risks and their contribution to loss of health and early death were analysed.

Assorted Junk Food







The study identified 14 dietary risk factors which included a diet:

  1. Low in fruits
  2. Low in vegetables
  3. Low in whole grains
  4. Low in nuts & seeds
  5. Low in milk
  6. High in red meat
  7. High in processed meat
  8. High in sugar-sweetened beverages
  9. Low in fibre
  10. Suboptimal in calcium
  11. Low in seafood omega 3 fatty acids
  12. Low in polyunsaturated fatty acids
  13. High in trans fatty acids
  14. High in sodium

The mix of dietary risks were found to have significantly changed since 1990. High consumption of SSB’S and red meat has increased since 1990, whereas a diet high in trans fats and vitamin A deficiency have decreased.

Dietary risks were found to contribute the most to loss of health worldwide (see fig.1 below) and in 2013, accounted for 241.4 million DALYs (disability-adjusted life years). The authors described, at the global level, it would appear that the most important contributors to the overall burden of diet are low fruit, high sodium, low whole grains, low vegetables and low nuts and seeds. However, it is important to note variation between countries due to different dietary patterns.

lancet picture (2)


Another finding of the study includes the observation that the profile of leading risk factors contributing to loss of health, has changed significantly since 1990 and has shifted from environmental risks towards metabolic and behavioural risks. In 1990, child and maternal malnutrition, unsafe water, sanitation and hand washing were the leading risks for global DALYs, but now these have been replaced by dietary risks and high blood pressure. A suitable explanation for this observation is the increasing occurrence of the “nutrition transition” in many low and middle income countries. Such countries due to gains in affluence, are consuming less traditional diets and adopting the “Western diet” which is of a poorer diet quality.

The conclusion, why is this study important?

  • This study highlights the value of a healthy diet on health and longevity and reminds us that consuming a diet of poor quality can have seriously negative implications on how long we live and our quality of life.
  • The study although daunting, reminds us that dietary risk factors are modifiable and by changing behaviour, individuals can avoid illness and or premature death that is a result of a poor diet.
  • There is a need for more funding for research into improving health behaviours to be conducted. Moreover, there needs to be more research into how to improve dietary behaviours for the long term.
  • Special attention regarding consumption patterns of red meat and sugar sweetened beverages may be required.


Malaysian prawn noodle curry


Chili, lime & coconut plantain chips


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