We are eating so poorly it is killing us

Scientific articles published in The Lancet carry a certain prestige. In the field of medicine and public health, The Lancet is one of the world’s most respected journals.

Listen up what scientists behind a new article published in this journal are saying:

Our poor eating habits are evolving into an epidemic. “It is estimated that by 2020 nearly 75 % of all deaths and 60 % of all disability-adjusted life years will be attributable to NCDs” And what are those NCDs?

They are non-communicable chronic diseases, e.g. diseases that are not passed from person to person. There are four main types of these diseases: cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes. Most of the causes for NCDs are dietary or strongly diet-related. But that scary 2020 quote is not produced by the authors of this article. This article is mainly telling us, with rigorous scientific evidence, that this quote indeed does have a basis in reality: our eating habits are getting worse and worse and they are killing us.

The article is a systematic assessment which looked into the dietary quality of men and women in 187 countries, comparing the data from 1990 and 2010. The data was evaluated by looking into global consumption of key dietary items (food and nutrients) and further scrutinized by region, nation, age and sex. The massive assessment draws together data from 325 surveys which, according to the authors, covers 88.7 procent of the global adult population.

The conclusion is that although people in rich and middle-income countries have modestly increased their intake of healthier foods and nutrients, the scale and pace of our consumption of unhealthy (the authors list processed meats and sweetened drinks as some of the culprits)  foods and nutrients is outrunning this healthy development in every corner of the world.

The article criticizes the focus of international food programmes: most of them are designed to tackle undernutrition and micronutrient deficiency, but in virtually every region of the world, non-communicable chronic diseases are surpassing those issues.

The real urging, policy advocacy sentence comes in the very last paragraphs of the article: “The results of this study show an urgent need to focus on improvement of diet quality among poor populations worldwide”.

Want food security and a healthy, cognitively adapt population? Look into diets.

Photo by yum9me. Flickr Creative Commons, original photo can be found here

2 thoughts on “We are eating so poorly it is killing us

  1. Hi Laura, thanks for sharing!

    My take home message from the Lancet article is the growing ‘nutrition inequality’ where in many places the gap between the well-fed and not so well-fed is growing. And that overeating/obesity is the new kid on the block. However looking at our ‘global diet’ it has improved since the 1970’s. See for example child malnutrition which reduced quite a bit while global population grew: http://data.unicef.org/resources/2013/webapps/nutrition

    For some interesting reading please check:

    – Big study on global obesity prevalence – also in Lancet last year (and also funded by Gates foundation): http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2814%2960460-8/abstract

    – ‘Future Diets’ report (2014) by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI): http://www.odi.org/future-diets

    – Cassidy et al (2013) Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/3/034015

    – Biodiversity International and FAO (2012) Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity: http://www.bioversityinternational.org/e-library/publications/detail/sustainable-diets-and-biodiversity/

    1. Erik, thank you for your insights and valuable comments! I do agree with you. Decreasing child malnutrition globally is a success story.
      Now comes the nutrition challenge. Have you read Stanford University’s collection of food security articles? The book is called “Evolving sphere of food security”. It has a really great article on the “Second food security challenge” which deals with countries that have or are about to achieve food security in terms of quantity of food. The article debates that if nutritional quality of food is not met in this crucial point of development, part of the population will be dropped into a poverty trap since they will never be able to enter jobs that require more sophisticated cognitive abilities. So it relates a lot to the global nutrition inequality which you mentioned. Good news is that we can do a lot to reduce that inequality.

      Thanks for the links! I was familiar with the Lancet article and Cassidy but not those two others.

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