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What do we really know? Health effects of dietary risks

What do we really know? Health effects of dietary risks

The championing of balanced diets, that include animal proteins and meat, even processed meat, need to be the focus going forward.

Food is essential to life, and what we eat is in part determinative of our health and life-years. For recent decades, meat, especially processed meat, has been the primary suspect for many of our dietary health risks as it relates to non-communicable diseases. New data suggests this widely accepted ‘fact’ may in fact not be so true.

A new scientific paper notes, “Suboptimal diet is an important preventable risk factor for non-communicable diseases (NCDs).” The NCDs of focus were ischaemic heart disease, diabetes and colorectal cancer. The scientific analysis determines that the highest dietary risks are from the high intake of sodium, the low intake of whole grains and the low intake of fruits. Further, data does indicate that diets high in processed meats, low in milk and high in red meats do have their risks, but relative to other dietary risks they are extremely low as it relates to deaths and disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs). The chart shows the risks from high to low, with a comparable impact grouping added that considers the overall relative impact of the dietary risks. 

The April 2019 scientific paper titled, “The Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017” provides great insight into what are the true dietary risks. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding for the study.

The study findings are: “In 2017, 11 million (95% uncertainty interval [UI] 10–12) deaths and 255 million (234–274) DALYs were attributable to dietary risk factors. High intake of sodium (3 million [1–5] deaths and 70 million [34–118] DALYs), low intake of whole grains (3 million [2–4] deaths and 82 million [59–109] DALYs), and low intake of fruits (2 million [1–4] deaths and 65 million [41–92] DALYs) were the leading dietary risk factors for deaths and DALYs globally and in many countries. Dietary data were from mixed sources and were not available for all countries, increasing the statistical uncertainty of our estimates.”

The scientific analysis finds that a small number of dietary risks had a large impact on health outcomes. In 2017, more than half of diet-related deaths and two-thirds of diet-related DALYs were attributable to the high intake of sodium, the low intake of whole grains and the low intake of fruits.

As with any study covering 195 countries and data derived from over 27 years, one can debate data sources, data points and data analysis. For reference, the paper selected 15 dietary risk factors in part based on disease burden and the strength of the epidemiological evidence supporting a causal relationship between risk factor exposure and disease endpoints. Further the paper notes, “We defined the optimal level of intake as the level of risk exposure that minimizes the risk from all causes of death.” And, it noted how they estimated the optimal intake for each dietary factor. The paper adds, “We considered 24 h diet recall as the gold standard method for assessing mean intake at the population level and adjusted dietary data from other sources accordingly.”

Of interest, recognizing all the United Nation’s (UN) efforts the past decades, including those of the World Health Organization (WHO), the report finds, “Globally, consumption of nearly all healthy foods and nutrients was suboptimal in 2017.” Then notes that the largest gaps between current and optimal intake were observed for nuts and seeds, milk and whole grains, with mean consumption at 12% of nuts and seeds per day, 16% of milk per day, and 23% of whole grains per day of the optimal levels. These gaps in optimal intake hopefully inspire the UN and WHO to prioritize their resource focus appropriately.

The paper notes, “We found that improvement of diet could potentially prevent one in every five deaths globally. Our findings show that, unlike many other risk factors, dietary risks affected people regardless of age, sex and sociodemographic development of their place of residence. Although the impact of individual dietary factors varied across countries, non-optimal intake of three dietary factors (whole grains, fruits, and sodium) accounted for more than 50% of deaths and 66% of DALYs attributable to diet.”

The authors state that the report highlights the need for improving diets across nations. And, “Our findings will inform implementation of evidence-based dietary interventions and provide a platform for evaluation of their impact on human health annually.” 

Hopefully with these scientific insights, the UN, and the various intergovernmental organizations such as WHO and FAO (Food & Agriculture Organizations), can truly prioritize their resources and interventions to where they will have the most desirable beneficial effects on health outcomes. The championing of balanced diets, that include animal proteins and meat, even processed meat, need to be the focus going forward. This scientific analysis provides excellent insight into the health effects of dietary risks, now the globally available resources need to be prioritized and allocated to where they will have the greatest impact on human health globally. 

Importantly, as a part of a balanced and sustainable diet, enjoy your beef filet, pork loin, chicken breast, and sausage! And of course, a glass of cold milk! Nutritious and delicious at its best!

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