Eat Less Salt, Eat More Wholegrains, Fruit and Veg, Nuts and Seeds and Omega-3 for longer life

Eating for a Longer, Healthier Life

By the wlr team

Key Takeaways

  • The key messages from this study are depicted above. Eat less salt, eat more fruit, more whole grains, more nuts and seeds, more vegetables and more omega 3 fats.
  • 22% of all adult deaths (11 million) across the globe in 2017 were diet-related.
  • Poor diet also resulted in 255 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs*)
  • Cardiovascular disease was the biggest contributor, followed by cancers and type 2 diabetes.
  • More deaths were associated with not eating enough healthy foods compared with eating too many unhealthy foods.

The Study

The Global Burden of Disease study is the most comprehensive analysis on the health effects of diet ever conducted.

The study evaluated the consumption of major foods and nutrients across 195 countries between 1990 and 2017 and quantified the impact of poor diets on death and disease from non-communicable diseases (specifically cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes).

You can access the full findings of the study at The Lancet.

The Findings

This article focusses on the main dietary factors from the 15 included in the study that had the biggest impact. A list of the whole 15 is included in the optimal intake table below.

Researchers looked at the impact of diet in terms of death rates and Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs*).

*One DALY can be thought of as one lost year of “healthy” life. (You can find a full definition here on the WHO website.)

Number of Deaths at the Global Level Attributable to Diet

A small number of dietary risks had a large impact on health outcomes. More than half of diet-related deaths (3 million) were attributable to high intake of sodium, low intake of whole grains (3 million), and low intake of fruits (2 million).

Chart 1 showing impact of poor diet on global mortality rate
Chart 1: Deaths from poor diet

Number of DALYs at the Global Level Attributable to Diet

70 million diet-related DALYs were attributable to high intake of sodium, 82 million to low intake of whole grains and 65 million to low intake of fruits.

Chart 2 showing impact of poor diet on global disability rate
Chart 2: Disabilities from poor diet

Optimal Levels of Intake

The adjustments in diet indicated by the study are actionable and affordable in the UK and other relatively high-income countries, but may be beyond the reach of people living in low-income regions of the world.

The study authors defined the optimal level of intake as the level of risk exposure that minimises the risk from all causes of death.

The + and - signs beside each dietary component denote whether they were positively or negatively associated with health. Dietary components are listed in order of their impact on death rates/DALYs.

Dietary Component Optimal Daily Intake (Range)
Whole Grains + 125g (100-150g)
Sodium - 3g (1-5g)**
Fruits + 250g (200-300g)
Nuts/Seeds + 21g (16-25g)
Vegetables + 360g (290-430g)
Omega 3 Fats + 250mg (200-300mg)
Fibre + 24g (19-28g)
Polyunsaturated Fats + 11% of calorie intake (9-13%)
Legumes + 60g (50-70g)
Trans Fats - 0.5% of calorie intake (0-1%)
Calcium + 1250mg (1000-1500mg)
Sugary Drinks - 3g (0-5g)
Processed Meat - 2g (0-4g)
Milk + 435g (350-425g)
Red Meat - 23g (18-27g)

WLR Observations

An interesting point to note is the optimal intakes of fruits and vegetables. 250g of fruit is approximately 3 portions and 360g of vegetables is 4-5 portions, giving a total of 7-8 portions a day. This is more than the current level recommended by the UK Health Dept (that we struggle to meet).

Also, the fibre element of the table is somewhat redundant. If you eat the optimal amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, you'll be getting at least your 24g of fibre. (Whole grains are defined as: bran, germ, and endosperm in their natural proportion from breakfast cereals, bread, rice, pasta, biscuits, muffins, tortillas, pancakes, and other sources.)

The table denotes that some foods should be almost completely avoided. Sugary drinks, for example, at a limit of 3g(ml) a day, effectively means that you shouldn't drink a can of coke (330ml) more than once in 110 days. Essentially 3 times a year.

The same principle applies to processed meat, at 2g a day a rasher of bacon for breakfast (30g) should be a once a fortnight treat.

Red meat at 23g a day suggests eating a portion no more than 2-3 times a week.

WLR Comment

The encouraging thing about the findings of this study is the focus on getting enough/more of the good stuff. In our opinion that's a much better way to approach having a healthy diet than demonising whole food groups - like carbs in general.

Having said that, for many of us Brits, getting to 7-8 portions of fruit and veg a day won't be easy but is doable if we consciously try to increase proportions over a period of time. For those of us wanting to lose weight, choosing fruit and veg over other higher calorie foods will definitely help.

How Healthy Is Your Diet?

If you'd like to have a closer look and see how healthy your diet is, have a look at the tools and databases in Weight Loss Resources. You can check if your diet is balanced, how many calories you eat (and how many you need!), track how many servings of fruit and veg you eat in a day, and look up the calorie, protein, carbohydrate, fat and fibre content of UK foods. Try it free.

Take our FREE trial »


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

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