Leading Cause of Death? What We Put Into Our Mouths Every Day

Fast food, high sodium and loads of saturated fat.

We’ve all heard the warnings, but a study from the University of Washington provides some evidence that, as a global community, we’re eating ourselves to death.

The good news is, we can prevent the leading cause of death by eating better, exercising, and taking better care of ourselves.

In a study published in the medical journal The Lancet, researchers studied health trends over the 23-year period from 1990 to 2013.

The team examined data on 79 risk factors and surveyed 188 countries across the world to come to the sobering conclusion that dietary risk factors accounted for 11.3 million deaths worldwide.

It’s the highest risk factor for death when accounting for natural deaths and disability-adjusted life-years.

“At the global level, the most important contributors to the overall burden of diet are low fruit, high sodium, low whole grains, low vegetables, and low nuts and seeds,” wrote the authors of the study.

After dietary risk factors, high systolic blood pressure was responsible for 10.4 million deaths, while high BMI rates account for 4.4 million deaths globally. Other offenders include tobacco smoke (6.1 million), air pollution (5.5 million) and child and maternal malnutrition (1.7 million deaths).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity “nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008.”

In 2008, the WHO estimated that more than 50 percent men and women in the WHO European Region were overweight while about 20 percent of men and 23 percent of women were obese. More than 60 percent of children in the same region were overweight before hitting puberty.

Urbanization, development and the rising obesity rates

There’s a correlation between obesity rates and urban development across the globe. We often see a pattern of decreased physical activity and increased consumption of convenience or unhealthy food when living conditions improve.

For instance, a study published in the 2011 volume of the Journal of Obesity stated that development and urbanization in the Arab world have led to higher obesity rates.

Another study published in The American Society for Nutritional Sciences found that women in North African areas that are still combating malnutrition are gaining weight at an alarming rate.

The researchers credit the cultural ideal of female fatness “as a sign of social status and is a cultural symbol of beauty, fertility and prosperity.”

The study conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington is illuminating because the biggest risk factors are preventable. The National Institutes of Health recommends that people adhere to a healthy diet with a reduction of 500 calories per day if they need to lose weight.

We should be physically active and limit the time we spend being physically inactive.

The numbers in this study further illustrate the state of our health on a global scale. We are barraged with a variety of convenient, tasty and indulgent food on a daily basis, while our lifestyles have become more sedentary.

Even accounting for disease and famine, this study should serve as a wake-up call that we can help prevent the biggest cause of death around the world.