Pass the veggies
Your diet may be killing you. Literally.
This was the finding of a new study published Wednesday in the British medical journal The Lancet. In one of the largest surveys of data on global dietary habits and longevity, scientists concluded that 20 percent of deaths around the world were linked to poor diets.
For 2017 alone, that total came to 11 million avoidable deaths. Of that number, a whopping 10 million or so were attributable to cardiovascular disease.
With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists analyzed data on the eating habits of 195 countries in 15 different categories, including how much milk, processed meat, salt, sugar and fresh fruits and vegetables residents consumed.
Not surprisingly, the scientists concluded that over-consumption of fats and sugars correlated with sickness and premature death. Similarly, they found that those nations with the highest rates of eating vegetables, fruit, fish and whole grains lived longest.
But what was surprising was the study’s central recommendation. Rather than taking the traditional approach of warning people to reduce their intake of unhealthy foods, the authors instead concluded that the most effective way to reduce mortality was to encourage people to add more healthy items to their diets.
The authors justified this conclusion because, they said, people tended to miss their targets for good foods (fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables) more than they exceeded the recommended limits for bad ones (sugar, fatty meats).
Now, you could read this as letting the food industry off the hook. Go ahead, Nestle, Kraft Heinz, Coke and Pepsi, keep churning out soda, processed meats, cookies, chips and pastries. You’re doing nothing wrong.
But that misses the point. Around the world, people already know about the health risks of these foods. And they eat them anyway.
For many, it’s simply a matter of convenience and economics. Processed foods are cheap, readily available and keep well. Plus, they require little or no preparation to eat.
Meanwhile, fresh fruits, vegetables and fish cost more. You must refrigerate them. They spoil quickly, and they take time and effort to prepare.
If we want to change the numbers, finger-wagging isn’t going to work. So, we may as well try a positive approach.
Still, that’s far from enough.
Efforts must happen at national, state and local levels. Indeed, with one of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the nation, Oklahoma stands to save thousands of lives each year by changing our collective eating habits.
We need to look at ways to even the playing field, to make healthy options affordable, accessible and convenient to everyone, not just those who live near (and can afford) Whole Foods. That also means eliminating “food deserts,” neighborhoods and regions where fresh choices are few and far between.
In addition, it requires us to rethink our use of agricultural subsidies — which total more than $15 billion annually in the U.S. — to spur our nation’s farmers to produce more healthy items.
Of course, like all health initiatives, it’s key to start with people when they’re young. So, we need to examine ways to help schools serve healthier meals to students. And, of course, those meals need to be both affordable and tasty.
These are, obviously, not small obstacles to surmount. But the cost in lives and dollars is too massive to ignore.
According to this study, in the U.S. alone, an estimated half-million people are dying prematurely each year due to their diets. We can do better. Indeed, we must.
A physician and medical researcher, Prescott is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.