The fact that eating a well-balanced diet supports our mental and physical wellbeing and is likely to reduce risk of some diseases like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers is old news, but what may come as a surprise is just how dangerous the food on your plate could be.

Last week the media responded to a report in The Lancet, with shock headlines such as ‘Bad diets kill more people than smoking’ to get us to sit up and pay attention.

The health of our planet

The Lancet report took a look at the eating habits of 195 countries around the world to find some common themes, and concluded that 11 million deaths globally are thought to be caused by bad eating habits. That accounts for one in five deaths. Of these 11 million, 10 million are attributed to cardiovascular disease. We are literally eating our way to an early grave.

Shockingly, these findings indicate that poor diets are responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor, including tobacco smoking.

The big five

So what are the risk factors? The big factors identified in this study are:

– High intake of salt

– Low intake of wholegrains

– Low intake of fruit

– Low intake of nuts and seeds

– Low intake of omega 3 fats

Where have we been going wrong?

Interestingly, it seems that what we are NOT eating, rather than what we ARE eating is the big problem. The lack of healthier and more nutritious foods like oily fish, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds in our diet is what has been associated with disease.

Sugar, salt and fat have been the hot topics for policy makers around the world over the past two or three decades. If this study is anything to go by, it is time for a change in thinking.

Of course, as individuals we all need to take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. Nobody can force us to eat more broccoli, cut back on salt and increase our fibre intake. This has to be an individual choice, but if government policy is paving the way for an influx of ultra-processed foods on to our supermarket shelves with messages like ‘low fat’, ‘reduced sugar’ and such like, this temptation can be an easy option for a quick fix.

We need to get back to basics and eat real food

What is the world’s healthiest diet? Israel is top of the charts, closely followed by France and Spain for the lowest levels of diet-related deaths globally. It looks like the Mediterranean diet wins again.

At the other end of the scale, south-east, southern and central Asia have the highest incidence of diet-related mortality, despite their high vegetable intake. This is likely as a result of their high salt intake, often in the form of soy sauce and other salty condiments.

What can you change?

In light of this recent paper, here are some recommendations to help you eat a healthier diet:

– Use herbs, lemon or spices instead of salt.

– Cook more. Instead of choosing pre-cooked sauces, ready meals or convenience foods, make more meals from scratch. Much healthier and tastier too.

– Check labels for salt content. Anything over 1.5g per 100g is a high salt intake, compared to 0.3g or less as a low salt level.

– Swap white for wholegrain. Slowly make the switch to brown rice, wholemeal pasta and wholegrain bread.

– Eat more pulses. Peas, beans and lentils are great sources of fibre.

– Eat at least 5 a day, every day.

– Eat a handful of nuts and seeds every day. Any unsalted, unroasted nuts or seeds will add a nutritional boost to your daily diet – almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, sunflower or pumpkin seeds. Keep on your desk and much some as a healthy snack.

– Eat oily fish a couple of times a week.

This blog post first appeared as an article in The Irish News on Saturday 13th April 2019.