Low fiber, high salt diets responsible for one in five deaths worldwide

Data from the Global Burden of Disease study published this week show that poor diet is the greatest risk factor for dying early. The study showed that globally, one in every five deaths can be attributed to a poor diet.

Western diets that are high in sodium (salt) and trans fats have been linked to a myriad of diseases including hypertension and diabetes.Yuriy Golub | Shutterstock

We all know that what we eat can affect our health, energy levels and mood. Diet can also be a risk factor for many chronic diseases, such diabetes. Indeed, the well-known adage “You are what you eat” has been in circulation for decades. Yet it appears that we are still not choosing to eat enough of the foods we know to be good for us.

The Global Burden of Disease Study has been systematically evaluating health across the world and the impact of lifestyle choices since 1990. It is the most comprehensive worldwide observational epidemiological study.  

The most recent analysis evaluated the consumption of major foods and nutrients across 195 countries and the impact of suboptimal intake on mortality and morbidity.

The study reports that in 2017, 11 million deaths were attributable to dietary risk factors. Of these, 3 million were caused by high salt intake, 3 million were due to low intake of whole grains, and 2 million resulted from eating too few fruits.

Interestingly, more deaths were caused by diets containing too few whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds than by diets with high levels of trans fats, sugary drinks, and processed meats.

We find that diet is one of the dominant drivers of health around the world, it's really quite profound…

While sodium, sugar, and fat have been the focus of policy debates over the past two decades, our assessment suggests the leading dietary risk factors are high intake of sodium, or low intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, and vegetables.

The paper also highlights the need for comprehensive interventions to promote the production, distribution, and consumption of healthy foods across all nations."

Dr. Christopher Murray, Study Author

Around 10 million of the 11 million diet-related deaths in 2017 were because of cardiovascular disease, the risk of which is increased by both high salt in the diet and insufficient whole grains, fruit, and vegetables.

Too much salt raises blood pressure, which can cause heart attacks and strokes, whereas nuts and seeds are cardioprotective and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

On average, diets included only 12% of the recommended daily intake of 25g of nuts and seeds and 23% of the recommended daily intake of 126g of whole grains.

The study found that people in almost every region of the world could benefit from rebalancing their diets to eat optimal amounts of various foods and nutrients.

These latest findings reinforce the urgent need for coordinated global efforts to improve diet, through collaboration with various sections of the food system and policies that drive balanced diets.


GBD Diet Collaborators. Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. The Lancet. 2019. Epub ahead of print. 3 April 2019. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30041-8

Kate Bass

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Kate Bass

Kate graduated from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne with a biochemistry B.Sc. degree. She also has a natural flair for writing and enthusiasm for scientific communication, which made medical writing an obvious career choice. In her spare time, Kate enjoys walking in the hills with friends and travelling to learn more about different cultures around the world.


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