The consequences of not eating a balanced diet may be much graver than we thought.

A major study published in the Lancet this month suggests it contributes to one in five deaths worldwide. That’s about 11 million deaths every year that may be prevented by eating fewer red and processed meats, sugary drinks and trans fats — and more whole grains, nuts and fruit.

The seven-year Global Burden of Disease Study looked at dietary factors from 1990 to 2017 in 195 countries and found people were eating too many of the wrong types of food, and too little of the food their bodies needed. And that may be a key factor in a range of chronic diseases.

"This study affirms what many have thought for several years — that poor diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor in the world," study author Christopher Murray of the University of Washington noted in a release.

"While sodium, sugar, and fat have been the focus of policy debates over the past two decades, our assessment suggests the leading dietary risk factors are high intake of sodium, or low intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, and vegetables.”

The study tallied 10 million deaths linked to cardiovascular disease, with cancer, at 913,000, coming in a distant second. Type 2 diabetes accounted for 339,000 deaths.

Need for food education

An illustration of different types of food on forks. Researchers say the results underline the need for more effective food education campaigns around the world. (Photo: Lightspring/Shutterstock)

The report also highlighted an alarming disparity between countries when it came to food-related deaths.

People in Uzbekistan, for example, had 10 times the mortality rate as those in Israel — a country where diet claimed the fewest lives, at just 89 people out of every 100,000 people. France, Spain and Japan followed Israel at the top of the list, while the U.S. ranked 43rd.

The study also saw a steady uptick in the number of food-related deaths from 1990 to 2017, rising from 8 million to 11 million. Diets deemed high in sodium, low in whole grains, and low in fruit — the standard fare of fast-food nations — together accounted for more than 5 million of those 2017 deaths.

The results, the authors say, underline the ineffectiveness of current food education campaigns. The findings should also add urgency to the need for food system interventions aiming to rebalance diets around the world.

1 in 5 deaths globally linked to poor diet
Research finds a bad diet to be the biggest risk for early death worldwide.