Unhealthy Diets Kill More People Than Cigarettes Do, Study Says

There were 11 million deaths worldwide attributed to an unhealthy diet in 2017, according to a new study published in the medical journal The Lancet. That's 4 million more than those who die each year from diseases related to smoking tobacco. Of those 11 million diet-related fatalities, 50 percent were reportedly caused by high intake of sodium and low intake of whole grains and fruits.

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To gather this information, researchers evaluated the food consumption of adults 25 and older in 195 different countries by looking at data dating back to 1990. Then they estimated the impact of unhealthy diets on the risk of death from chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer, with the biggest killer being cardiovascular disease.

Unbalanced diets are a universal threat, but the lowest rates of diet-related deaths were observed in high-income Asia Pacific countries, where omega-3 fatty acid consumption is off the charts. Oceania, on the other hand, had the highest rate of diet-related deaths. Charts show the region is low on fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. As far as the U.S. goes, we ranked 43 out of 195. Data shows that we also consume the most processed meat, trans fat and sugar-sweetened beverages.

"Generally, the countries that have a diet close to the Mediterranean diet, which has higher intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and healthy oils [including olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids from fish] are the countries where we see the lowest number of [diet-related] deaths," study author Ashkan Afshin told NPR.

The Mediterranean diet — which focuses heavily on fruits, vegetables, fish, fibrous whole grains, legumes and nuts — was recently named the best health regimen. Separate research shows it could lower the risk of dementia, aggressive prostate cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

In addition to death, unhealthy eating habits were also connected to 255 million disability-adjusted life years or the estimate of years lost due to poor health or disability. In short: A balanced diet could help deter health complications and improve overall human vitality.

"I don't know how many alarms we need before we start making changes," Afshin told HealthDay. Though access to fresh food and other resources can vary around the globe, you can start making better choices today by avoiding these ways you didn't know you were sabotaging your diet.