September 29, 2019

Reducing Global Deaths by Balancing Diets

New study: Balanced diets could prevent 1 in 5 deaths globally

Worried about heart disease? A recent study in The Lancet sheds light on the importance of diet as a risk factor for ischaemic heart disease, diabetes and colorectal cancer. The researchers, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, analyzed data from 195 countries collected between 1990 and 2017 and found that diets high in sodium and low in grains and fruit were responsible for half of diet-related deaths in adults above age 25.

The study, titled “Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017,” emphasizes the need for more evidence-based dietary interventions and establishes a methodology for evaluating global diets going forward.

“We found that improvement of diet could potentially prevent one in every five deaths globally. Our findings show that, unlike many other risk factors, dietary risks affected people regardless of age, sex and sociodemographic development of their place of residence,” write the researchers. “Although the impact of individual dietary factors varied across countries, non-optimal intake of three dietary factors (whole grains, fruits, and sodium) accounted for more than 50% of deaths and 66% of DALYs [disability-adjusted life-years] attributable to diet.”

Unlike some recent headlines, which place blame for poor nutrition on over-consumption of animal products, the recent study shows that animal products are part of balanced nutrition. In fact, the researchers show that a lack of milk consumption was one of the key differences between an optimal and a sub-optimal diet.

The researchers did find that global consumption of processed meat was 90 percent greater (at 4 grams per day) than what they considered the optimal amount, and the global intake of red meat was 18 percent greater (at 27 grams per day) than their recommended optimal amount; however, this consumption was not identified as a major dietary risk factor for ischaemic heart disease, diabetes or colorectal cancer.

Instead, the researchers identified whole grains as the leading dietary risk factor for DALYs among men and women—and the leading dietary risk factor for mortality among women. In men, high sodium intake ranked first for mortality among, followed by whole grains and fruit.

Age was an important factor too, as low intake of whole grains was the leading risk for deaths and DALYs among young adults (aged 25–50 years) and sodium ranked first among older adults (≥70 years).

“Our results show a need for extensive changes in various sectors of the food system at the global, regional, and national levels to improve diet,” write the study authors.

The authors acknowledge that changing global food systems may affect the environment, so more research would need to be done on how greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use would be affected by shifting food sources. The researchers recommend more studies into what kind of dietary interventions actually work in different countries.

In a column for Feedstuffs, Dennis Erpelding, founder of Global Farm View, LLC, reflected on the need for this type of global diet analysis:

“Hopefully with these scientific insights, the UN, and the various intergovernmental organizations such as WHO and FAO (Food & Agriculture Organizations), can truly prioritize their resources and interventions to where they will have the most desirable beneficial effects on health outcomes. The championing of balanced diets, that include animal proteins and meat, even processed meat, need to be the focus going forward,” wrote Erpelding.

More information:

Read the study: Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017

ASAS Policy Statement: Livestock's Important Role in International Agricultural Development