You may already know that a poor diet isn’t good for you. But did you know that a poor diet may also shorten your lifespan? There’s a strong connection between food choices and wellness. And a new study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation underscores this link.
The study looked at 195 countries across the globe. It tracked food trends from 1990 through 2017, and it included 15 major food categories.
Researchers found unhealthy diets were linked to 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.
They also found poor diets contributed to 255 million disabling illnesses. “Poor diet” was identified as one low in whole grains, nuts, and fruits, and high in sodium.
Countries that came out as the worst in the study were:
- The Marshall Islands
- Papua New Guinea
Nations that appeared to eat the best (with the lowest rate of diet-related deaths) were:
The Poor Diet Cycle
So, how do people develop such poor diets? Well, the risk factors have very simple origins: lack of time, money, and healthy food choices.
Low-income areas fared the worst in the study. There’s greater availability of cheap fast food and less fresh food choices. And cost always outweighs all else if you’re trying to keep your family afloat.2
We live in a world where almost everyone has simple, inexpensive access to “quick and easy” junk food. Even if money isn’t an issue, time is. And fast food is convenient.
The Addictive Nature of Processed Foods
Processed junk foods are often packed with lots of sodium and sugar, bad fats, and few nutrients. And, these types of unhealthy ingredients are addictive over time. In fact, some doctors compare them to other addictive substances, like alcohol or drugs.3
It can be hard to suddenly switch from a poor diet to one rich in healthy fruits and vegetables. But if the switch doesn’t happen, weight gain and poor nutrition is the result. And both can lead to chronic illnesses.
But, as the Gates Foundation study shows, everyone needs a balanced diet. And it needs to be rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts.
What is a Healthy, Balanced Diet?
With so many fad diets, figuring out what’s healthy can get murky. A great place to start is to follow the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion guidelines. A healthy diet consists of:
- A variety of fresh vegetables of all kinds —such as dark, leafy greens and red and orange veggies.
- Legumes, like beans and peas, are also great.
- A wide variety of whole fruits, not fruit juices.
- Plenty of whole grains (those that still contain the endosperm, germ, and bran). Go for whole oats, brown rice, rye, buckwheat, bulgur, or quinoa.
- Low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese.
- A variety of proteins – like seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, and nuts and seeds.
- Plenty of good fats and oils – such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, canola, and sunflower.4
What About Red Meat?
Experts recommend eating red meat in moderation. Why? Red meat often contains more saturated fats than chicken, fish, and vegetable proteins. Too much saturated fat in your diet can lead to risk factors for problems like:
- Weight gain
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease5
Choose lean cuts of red meat, like round, sirloin, or loin. Keep portions small. A good rule of thumb is your red meat portion shouldn’t be larger than a deck of cards. Also, limit processed meats, like bacon, salami, sausages, and deli slices.6
The Mediterranean-Style Diet
The Mediterranean-style diet is often seen as a perfect example of a healthy diet. It’s also linked to reduced mortality rates and reduced rates of chronic illness.
Though it’s called a “diet,” it’s a way of life for many around the world. The Mediterranean-style diet is common in places like Greece, Spain, Italy, Egypt, and Turkey. And, it’s interesting to note that 4/5 of the countries that topped the Gates Foundation’s study for lowest mortality are in the Mediterranean region.
A Mediterranean-style diet consists of:
- A high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and unrefined grains;
- A high intake of olive oil;
- A good intake of fish,
- A low intake of dairy, meat, and poultry;
- A regular (but moderate) intake of wine with meals.7
Can Exercise Offset a Poor Diet?
You can’t “out-exercise” a poor diet. Studies show a poor diet is a bigger risk factor for illness than a lack of exercise, alcohol consumption, and smoking combined. And though many believe that being overweight is due to a lack of physical activity, evidence suggests otherwise.
Researchers believe emphasizing physical activity over a good diet contributes to the obesity problem.
People might think it’s okay to consume processed foods, as long as they exercise. This isn’t true.
You see, what you eat tells your hormones to either store or burn fat, adjust your metabolism, and build or break down muscle. And your calories are not created equally. You could eat 100 calories of spinach, or 100 calories of chocolate. And they’d each trigger different hormonal reactions in your body.8
Poor Diet Quality – Is It Worth the Risk?
A balanced diet doesn’t have to be a challenge if you plan ahead. Although it can take time to change poor eating habits. However, it’s time well spent if your life depends on it, right?
If money is an issue, don’t rule out fresh fruits and vegetables. You can make inexpensive meals from fresh produce – especially when you buy and cook in bulk. And buying fruits and veggies in season can save you some money.
Start slowly, and try to include healthy foods at every meal. The USDA has a wonderful meal planning website that you can visit here to help you to plan ahead.
Poor food choices are closely linked to risk factors for disease and mortality. Unhealthy eating can lead to weight gain, putting you more at risk for illness. So, for longevity, a good diet should be an absolute priority in your household.
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