There is one thing that people around the world seem to have in common — our diets are terrible. In fact, what people eat from the United States to England to the Persian Gulf is so bad that it’s killing more people than any other risk factor, even smoking.
That was the take from a recent study published in the medical journal Lancet that found 1 in 5, or 11 million, deaths were a result of the foods we eat, or even more important, don’t eat. Meanwhile, smoking was linked to 8 million deaths.
Basically people surveyed in 195 countries ate way too much processed meat, sodium and sugary foods and drinks. They didn’t consume nearly enough healthy foods such as milk, whole grains, fiber, nuts and seeds, according to the study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle.
The results are really not that surprising, considering 39.8 percent of people in the United States (which ranked 43rd on deaths related to a bad diet) are obese. But the study’s authors said it provides the most comprehensive look ever at such data and at the very least, it offers a wake-up call for people to do better and for lawmakers to adopt policies to encourage people to eat more nutritiously. And we need to heed the warnings fast.
Unfortunately, the country is going backward in this respect. Instead, of taking actions that promote healthier eating, the Trump administration is pushing policies that would do the exact opposite — perhaps not surprising given the president’s famous love for fast food. For one, 750,000 low income people could lose food stamp benefits under new work requirements the Trump administration is trying to put in place. Advocates have said the poorest of the poor could be hurt by the proposed policies, which would limit the ability of states to seek waivers from current work requirements for reasons such as there not being enough jobs in certain areas. Not only would people not get enough to eat, but they may also turn to cheap foods such as chips and fast food burgers that have little or no nutritional value and are high in sodium and fat and all the things the researchers found might kill them. The researchers found that poor diets led to deaths from heart attacks and strokes, cancer and complications from type 2 diabetes — all in that order.
On top of that, the Trump administration has weakened federal nutrition standards for school meals, prompting a lawsuit from several state attorneys general. At issue is the rolling back of rules last year, put in place under the Obama administration, that limited sodium and increased the amount of whole grains in school meals. The reason: U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said kids won’t eat the meals and the food would just go to waste. So instead, we’ll serve them starchy unhealthy carbs with high calories and no nutritional value that will set them up for a life of health problems. Not to mention that bad nutrition leads to poor concentration and other health factors that make it harder to learn. And guess who will likely suffer the most? Low income students who depend on school lunches and already face health disparities. We also know that bad eating habits start early and are hard to reverse. Why not make good eating the habit of children instead?
Researchers in the Lancet study said that good policy can help reverse the trend. Despite criticism against it, we have seen how government intervention has brought down rates of cigarette smoking, and we applaud the General Assembly for passing legislation to make Maryland the ninth state in the country to raise the age for buying tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21, although we found it disturbing they exempted military members. Do we not care about the health of the people who serve our country at war? At any rate, we think the new age requirement will help keep so many young adults from getting hooked on an addictive practice that could one day cost them their lives.
Now, if we can only get people to take their diets more seriously. The researchers featured in the Lancet found that countries where the Mediterranean diet was common had a healthier population than other countries. Israel, Japan, Spain and France also had lower rates of diet-related disease. Maybe we can learn lessons from these countries.