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A Bad Diet Is Worse for You Than Smoking, Reports a New Study

A new meta-analysis reveals just how detrimental a poor diet is to your health.
Guy eating at fast-food restaurant

Filling your plate with fiber-rich vegetables and laying off the sodium-laden fast food might sound like obvious health advice you've heard many times before. However, only 10 percent of American adults consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day; and, a poor diet accounts for 20 percent of deaths worldwide, a recent study published in The Lancet reveals. In fact, the study also disclosed a shocking new verdict: a bad diet is worse than smoking cigarettes.

The Global Burden of Disease Study analyzed the dietary habits of people in 195 countries and calculated the deaths attributable to other common risk factors aside from poor diet, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high BMI, high blood glucose, air pollution, child and maternal malnutrition, as well as tobacco and alcohol use. Tobacco use accounted for about 14.5 percent of global deaths—right under high blood pressure, which is responsible for about 18.7 percent of deaths. Ironically enough, most of the death risk factors included in the study, aside from poor diet, are directly linked to eating unhealthily. High blood pressure (the second most deadly risk factor), high BMI, high LDL cholesterol, and child and maternal malnutrition all made the cut.

What is the deadliest factor contributing to a poor diet?

After further examination of how a poor diet leads to 20 percent of global deaths, the meta-analysis revealed that a high-sodium diet was the number one dietary risk factor—which explains why high blood pressure, a prime result of consuming too much salt, came in second in overall risk. Low consumption of whole-grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, vegetables, seafood-derived omega-3s, fiber, polyunsaturated fats, legumes, and high consumption of trans fats, respectively, followed a high-sodium diet.

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"Although we are used to seeing it in developing countries, the really strong message now is that this is a global phenomenon. Even relatively poor countries are more troubled now by things like diabetes than they are from conditions such as malaria," Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England and a collaborator on the project, told The Guardian. "A lot of it [comes] … down to the fact that people's way of life is changing; their diets are changing, people are eating too many calories, they are having too much fat and carbohydrate in their diet and they are not exercising [enough]."

The study researchers concluded that in order to elicit global change, policies targeting multiple sectors of the food system must be improved. On a smaller scale, you can take measures to live a longer, healthier life by quitting smoking (if you do), laying off the fast food, reducing your sodium intake, and stocking your kitchen with high-fiber foods.

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