Shock report: poor diet deadlier than smoking

Chocoholics: More than one Easter egg per person (80 million) will be sold in the UK this year

For many, the Easter holidays will be crowned by a feast: chocolate eggs and an epic roast. But a major new study says bad eating, high in fat and sugar, now kills more people than smoking.

Sugar-loaded chocolate Easter eggs; buttery hot cross buns; a juicy roast lamb. Easter is almost here and, for many people, it’s another holiday all about food.

But should we really be indulging so much? This week, The Lancet published one of the largest ever studies of the food that people eat around the world. It found that poor diet is a bigger killer than smoking, shortening the lives of 11 million people a year. That’s one in five adult deaths.

Around 10 million of those deaths were due to heart problems. The researchers blamed this on too much salt (which raises blood pressure and increases the risk of heart attacks) and not enough fruit, vegetables and whole grains (which lower the risk of heart problems).

The other deaths were caused by type 2 diabetes, brought on by too much sugar, and cancers which have been linked to diet.

The research found that the biggest problem is not eating too much junk food. Instead, it is about the healthy foods that people are not eating. It argued that health campaigns should shift focus away from nutrients like fat or sugar, and promote specific kinds of foods instead.

“The really big story for people to act on is increase your whole grains, fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetable intake and reduce salt if you can,” Dr Christopher Murray, one of the study’s authors, told the BBC.

While no country has a perfect diet, some are clearly eating better than others. Mediterranean countries, like Spain, Israel and France, have some of the lowest diet-related deaths in the world. They are known for eating lots of fruits, vegetables and healthy fats like olive oil. China meanwhile — which is known for salty foods like soy sauce — has some of the highest numbers of diet-related deaths each year.

The recommendations are similar to those made in the “planetary health diet” which was developed by scientists earlier this year. This promised to feed 10 billion people, without causing too much damage to the environment.

Food for thought

So, how much should we worry about the food we eat? The study confirms what scientists have suspected for a while: that regardless of weight, our diet has a major impact on our health. According to Murray, we must all ask ourselves the question: “Am I going to die in my 50s from a heart attack? Or am I going to have some of the diet-related cancers in my 40s?”

Then again, you can worry too much about food. Obsessively counting calories or worrying about every bite of chocolate can not only make you miserable — it can increase stress, which leads to its own health problems. Perhaps we should all learn to enjoy healthy food instead. After all, Mediterranean diets are not just healthy, they are famously delicious.

You Decide

  1. When choosing what to eat, do you care how healthy the options are?
  2. Should governments campaign against junk food, as they do against smoking?


  1. Make a poster giving advice on a healthy diet for young people. Take on board the research discussed in this article.
  2. Write your own food diary over the Easter holidays.

Some People Say...

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

Virginia Woolf

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The scientists looked at the global intake of 15 different nutrients — some healthy, others not. Globally, it found that people eat just 12% of the recommended amount of nuts and seeds per day (3g instead of 25g); 23% of recommended whole grain foods (29g instead of 126g); and 186% of recommended salt (6g instead of 3.2g).
What do we not know?
How to improve global diets. After all, food is cultural — traditional Asian sauces are very high in salt. Meanwhile, Mediterranean countries eat a lot of oily fish because they are, by their very nature, close to the sea. However, as one expert told CNN, “Anyone who studies the history of food will tell you cultural preferences change over time.” Will countries get healthier in the next 100 years? Or less healthy?

Word Watch

The Global Burden of Disease Study was conducted by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle. It was published in The Lancet this week. IHME says it is the most comprehensive look at the impact of diets on health ever conducted. It used data from 195 countries.
This causes around eight million early deaths a year.
Blood pressure
Too much salt increases the amount of sodium in your blood. This raises blood pressure, putting strain on your heart and arteries. This, in turn, raises the risk of heart problems like strokes or heart attacks.
Type 2 diabetes
A medical condition in which blood sugar levels become too high. Diabetes also increases your risk of heart problems. While type 1 diabetes is often a lifelong condition diagnosed in childhood, type 2 diabetes generally develops later in life.
Planetary health diet
This was developed by 37 scientists and introduced in The Lancet earlier this year. For more, read the first related article below.


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