Poor diet contributes to 11 million preventable deaths each year

As the social and economic costs of globally poor diet-related health continues to grow, it begs the question: what can be done?

| 01 Aug 2022

Eat your greens. Five a day. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. We’ve heard them all. Yet more than 11 million people die a preventable death each year due to chronic health conditions – conditions that may be caused by a poor diet.

Researchers believe that by following a plant and whole food-based diet, you can start to limit the burden of chronic diseases, like cardiovascular, type two diabetes and certain kinds of dementia, on the wider health system. Yet 90% of us don’t get the right amount of fruit and vegetables.

During UNSW Medicine & Health’s recent MedConnect event last week, panellists Jason Wu, UNSW Professor and Head of Nutrition Science at The George Institute for Global Health and Vanessa Matthijssen, Deloitte Asia Pacific ‘Future of Food’ Lead, explored the power of nutrition and how it can be harnessed to revolutionise health and wellbeing.  

The basics: What should you actually be eating?

ABC health and science reporter Tegan Taylor, who hosted the event, asked Professor Wu to explain what we should and shouldn’t be eating.

“You can put foods into three baskets. In the first the food that is clearly good for us, things like fruit vegetables, pulses, fish, lentils and wholegrains. Next you have the food that has some benefits but should be eaten moderately. This includes dairy and unprocessed meats. In the third basket, you have foods that are clearly terrible for you – soft drinks, processed meat and refined carbohydrate products like sugary cereals and white bread. These types of foods you should eat sparingly.”

Both experts agreed that empowering the individual through education may be one of the biggest opportunities to shift the burden of chronic and preventable disease.

“We already know the roadmap to health and wellbeing. If you focus on plant-based foods, you are naturally getting loads of dietary requirements. These fundamentals haven’t changed in decades,” Professor Wu said.

“We have a pretty good picture of what to eat to optimise health. The trillion-dollar question, which is the cost of diet-related ill health, has to be how a society supports people to achieve these dietary recommendations.”

While there are many societal, economic and cultural influences that may affect what we eat, Vanessa Matthijssen explained that we do have some choice about what we put into our bodies.

“We talk often about what’s called the intent gap. That’s the gap between knowing what’s healthy, knowing that you want to be healthy, and what is the easier choice,” she said.

“Where we need to shift both the individual, business and our wider society is to make sure that the healthy choice is the default and easy choice. We have a responsibility as a society to help make those choices easier to find and incorporate into our diets.”

MedConnect: Food on the frontline of health

Social and economic responsibilities

At a time where healthcare systems around the world are rapidly becoming unaffordable, there is a real social and economic imperative to focus on food. There is an increase in diet related illnesses, healthcare costs and the cost to economy due to productivity loss is significant.

Businesses have a bad reputation for playing into indulgences. But there are changes the food industry can make to improve our diets, Ms. Matthijssen explained.

“The food industry can play a significant role in improving our diets. There are specific steps they can consider that will help all of us,” she said.

“One way is through reformulations of current products, exemplified by lowering amounts of ingredients like sugar, salt and alcohol in their products. Businesses can play an active role in educating consumers through responsible nutrition advice, product placement on supermarket shelves, promoting healthy products, packaging and offering deals for healthy choices.”

To fix food, both experts agreed that we must also look beyond the supermarket shelves. Population level food policies like reformulation, limits on junk food advertising, procurement standards, fiscal measures, levies on unhealthy foods and subsidies for fresh produce and training of nutrition professionals. These are not only effective methods at nudging the population to make healthy choices but can be cost saving.

“What we need is strong leadership from our government to ensure these things happen,” Professor Wu said.

“Six million people have died from COVID, but 11 million people around the globe are dying from chronic disease and these may be preventable deaths,” he said.

“We need leadership from local, state and national government to formulate comprehensive policies and plans in place to help our health system, industry and community around to prioritising this issue and finding solutions.”  

Food as medicine – does it have a place in our health system?

“We don’t have a true healthcare system in Australia, we have a sickness and injury system,” Ms. Matthijssen said. “If anything happens to you, you go to the hospital. It costs $30 to 40 billion a year to treat chronic diseases in Australia.”

“In Australia, we spend only about 2% of our total public health expenditure on preventative care. In New Zealand or Canada, that figure is 6%. That’s a big gap.”

She argued that food should play an integral part in the future of healthcare.

“The opportunity we have is that we can start to think about more integrative care. We can look at both the preventative and recovery sides of our healthcare system. We really have to move towards holistic care which includes a focus on prevention and recovery.”

Can a good diet help prevent disease or recover from an illness? 

Research shows that by focusing on a plant-based diet, supplemented with unprocessed meat and healthy dairy consumption, and less salt can prevent diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. When it comes to recovery, the evidence again points to following basic recommended dietary guidelines.

“Even something as simple as recovering from a long run, often athletes will reach out for a sports drink to consume electrolytes. But, a simple glass of milk contains more electrolytes and is generally better for the body,” Ms Matthijssen explained.

Professor Wu agreed that at an individual level we can all play a part: “We need to think of ourselves as more than consumers. We can all play a role in making our food choices better. Simple things like offering a fruit platter instead of cake at your office morning tea, swapping water for soft drink, educating your kids on health choices, and reading the back of food labels can make a difference.”

Interested in learning more?

In 2023, UNSW Medicine & Health will launch Australia’s first combined degree in nutrition, dietetics and food innovation. This new Bachelor of Nutrition/Master of Dietetics & Food innovation will provide students with a comprehensive education in nutrition, health and food systems so they can play a critical role in building healthier communities. Find out more