By Glenn Ellis
Every year 11 million people die around the world just because they had a bad diet. Compare this to the fact that only six million die globally from smoking tobacco products. Let that sink in for a moment.
A recent study, published in The Lancet, a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal, has confirmed your risk of dying are greater from eating a bad diet than they are if you a cigarette smoker!
Like most things, this isn’t rocket science.
Contrary to popular belief, the harmful effects of a bad diet aren’t limited to upset stomachs, heartburn and constipation. In reality, bad diets are the first step in developing the plethora of chronic conditions that are the leading causes of death.
It is widely accepted that heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and arthritis — are among the most common, costly and preventable of all health problems. Without exception, each of these can be linked directly to behaviors associated with what we eat.
Regrettably, we live in a society where commerce and economics reduces us to consumers. As such, we are vulnerable to the exploits of food manufacturers and the agricultural industry and we find ourselves the main ingredient in a recipe (no pun intended) for a health disaster.
Over 100 years ago, this would not have been possible.
Back then, the leading causes of death were attributed to causes related to infection and the lack of hygiene (sewers, running water) in increasingly crowded cities and rural areas as well. The floods of (mostly European) immigrants entering the country accelerated the spread of disease and bacteria. These infections and bacteria were easily spread from person to person, leading to epidemics of outbreaks of smallpox, typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis.
With the discovery of penicillin in the 1920s, and subsequently made available to the public, infectious diseases were brought under control. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, vaccines, which had been discovered almost 200 years earlier were being promoted and administered throughout the country, helped bring the infections from childhood diseases to the point of eradication.
However, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, we found ourselves facing new threats to our existence. Only this time, they were self-imposed; we changed the way, and what we eat.
The late 1960’s and the 1970’s brought along with it, fast-food; instant meals; and loads of junk foods and snacks. These culprits introduced the next two-three generations to incredible amounts of salt; fat; and sweets the like of which had never been seen.
Current recommendations of limiting daily sodium intake to one teaspoon, are nothing when one considers that consumption a century earlier was so low that low-sodium diets to prevent high blood pressure were unheard of. Now, nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults are at risk of developing health problems associated with salt consumption. Similar comparisons can be made for saturated fats and excessive sugar.
Many families are victims of bad diets that they prepare in their homes. Others of us are living primarily off takeout meals. In both cases we’re eating over-processed foods that are loaded with salt, and other health robbing additives and preservatives. Making things worse is our love for fried foods! Remember, we are made to feel that the way to reward our children is with a Happy Meal!
Not only does frying make foods taste better, but they are usually fried in trans-fat oils. These oils are among the most dangerous things we are consuming as part of our overall bad diets. They cause inflammation and calcification in the body, leading to high rates of strokes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
All of this brings us to one simple fact: we are not eating enough fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts. These are the things that promote health and longevity yet are woefully missing from our typical diets.
The “fix” is simple. Make a determination to transition to a healthier diet, eliminate the habits and the foods that leading are us to an early grave.
Further complicating the deadly trend is stress! Since we have established consumption of tremendously bad diets, we need to acknowledge the role that stress plays in our behaviors for food choices.
There is much truth behind the phrase “stress eating.” The stress hormone, cortisol causes us to crave foods high in fat, sugar, and salt.
For African Americans, this reality is even more important. Studies have shown the link between stress that African Americans endure regularly as a result of institutional racism.
By the way, there is a downside to changing our diets. The consumer patterns we have established have resulted in these bad diets has led the agricultural industry to “oblige” our cravings by limiting the supply of fruits and vegetables. In other words, if everyone decided to eat healthy, there would not be enough fresh fruits and vegetables to go around.
What kind of society have we created where how we are eating is more deadly than the threat of smoking?
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor? and Information is the Best Medicine. Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.