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The global burden of a poor diet

Guest post by Katie Leach-Kemon, a policy translation specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

First Lady Michelle Obama recently said poor diet is “single-greatest cause of preventable diseases and ailments” in the United States.  Although the US is world-renown for its unhealthy food, this problem is not unique to the US.

Poor diets are causing health problems around the world.

Poor diets, also known as dietary risks, caused 11 million deaths globally in 2010 as shown in the image below from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s (IHME) online data visualization tool. These estimates are based on the Global Burden Disease (GBD) 2010 study (GBD). Dietary risks include 14 different components, such as not eating enough fruit, nuts and seeds, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3s and eating too much salt and processed meat.

Dietary risks contributed to more deaths than high blood pressure, smoking, or household air pollution. In total, researchers estimated that 210 million years were lost from premature death attributable to dietary risks.


As shown below, dietary risks were the leading risk factor for death in most regions of the world with the exception of Oceania, which includes small islands in the Pacific, and areas of sub-Saharan Africa. The live data visualization tool on the IHME website, which allows you to compare risk factor rankings across countries and regions, can be accessed here.

Diet IHME image 2

When it comes to diet, GBD 2010’s detailed analysis of different aspects of diet revealed that the most important dietary risk worldwide in 2010 was low fruit. Not eating enough fruit contributed to deaths from ischemic heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers (see screen grab below). A diet low in fruit translates to eating less than 3 servings (less than 11 ounces total) of fresh, frozen, cooked, canned, or dried fruit daily. Sorry juice lovers–fruit juices don’t count.

Diet IHME image 3

Eating too much salt (consuming more than 1,000 milligrams per day) was the second-greatest dietary risk factor. Excessive salt consumption is linked to diseases such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, and hypertensive heart disease. To put things in perspective, eating one meal at an average fast-food restaurant often qualifies as excessive salt consumption.

“Cutting our salt intake will result in tremendous health benefits,” said Professor Ali Mokdad, Director of Middle Eastern Initiatives and former director of the Behavior Risk Factors and Surveillance Survey at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “However, to do so, several partners have to be involved such as the public health community, restaurants, bakeries, and food industries.”

Lack of nuts and seeds is the third-leading dietary risk factor globally. The screen grab below shows that 35% of deaths from ischemic heart disease are attributable to eating fewer than 4 servings (4 ounces total) of nuts and seeds each week. Definitions for all 14 dietary risk factors can be downloaded from the IHME website.

Diet IHME image 4

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Humanosphere will sometimes post articles from authors from around the globe. Although these folks are not regular contributors, we hope you enjoy this change of pace.