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This Eating Habit Increases Risk of Fatal Diseases—Despite Exercising, New Study Finds

If you have a low-quality diet, you might not be able to outrun cardiovascular disease.
FACT CHECKED BY Justine Goodman

While it's no secret that it's important to eat food that is nutritious and beneficial to your body, you may have assumed that getting enough exercise could counteract the effects of less-than-ideal food choices. However, a new study has shown that regularly consuming unhealthy food can increase fatal risks despite exercise.

In the study, which was published in BMJ Sports Medicine, researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia took a look at the records from the UK Biobank that spanned from April 2007 to December 2020. Using information from 346,627 UK residents that had provided around 11 years of data, researchers first determined who was eating a high-quality diet and who was not.

A high-quality diet was determined to be one that included at least four and a half cups of fruit or vegetables per day and at least two servings of fish per week. It also included no more than two servings of processed meat per week and less than five servings of red meat in that same timeframe. On the other hand, a low-quality diet did not stick to these parameters and instead contained more red meat and processed foods, and not enough fruits, vegetables, or fish.

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After analyzing the data, researchers found that having a healthy diet and exercising lowered the risk of fatal diseases by 17% while a low-quality diet increased the risk of death. On top of that, those who had a low-quality diet also had a 19% greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a 27% higher risk of PDAR (adiposity-related) cancers.

"I 100% agree with the findings. You can't exercise your way out of an unhealthy diet for sure," Dana Ellis Hunnes Ph.D., MPH, RD, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA medical center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding school of public health, and author of Recipe for Survival, tells Eat This, Not That! "It is extremely easy to out-eat whatever you exercise, first off, but secondly, it's the composition of the diet that also matters. An inherently unhealthy diet cannot be fixed with exercise alone."

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"We get the most bang for our buck in terms of exercise when we are also eating a healthy diet that complements our overall healthy lifestyle," Hunnes adds. Beyond that, Hunnes notes that the more consistently we stick to a healthy diet and the more consistently we exercise, "the more consistently healthy we are."

As for the recommended high-quality diet and its link to longevity, Hunnes says, "I personally would like to see an even more whole-food, plant-based diet recommended than the one recommended here. However realistically speaking, the one recommended here is significantly better than probably 3/4 of Americans' diets."

Desirée O
Desirée O is a freelance writer who covers lifestyle, food, and nutrition news among other topics. Read more about Desirée