Recently, a study showed more than 40 million deaths in 200 countries indicated diet choices were more important than tobacco or hypertension for death and disability risk in 2017 in the world. The study linked poor diet quality to nearly 11 million deaths globally in 2017. That translated to 22 percent of deaths among all adults that year. 

You may only have a vague idea of what DNA and genes are, but your food and other choices determine which 1,500 or so of your 22,500 genes are producing proteins or are dormant. The proteins you produce determine whether you have inflammation or pain or accelerate arthritis or cancer or not. And while you never may have heard of CRISPR or understood DNA methylation, you are a genetic engineer by whether you move or not, whether you manage your stress or not, whether you smoke or live near a freeway and your food choices.  

The surprise of the study was not what we eat: poor nutrition helps drive many health conditions from high blood pressure to type 2 diabetes. Lead author Dr. Ashkan Afshin said it’s not just a matter of people eating too much junk food, which is common in wealthy nations like the United States. But a lot of deaths were caused by what we were not eating enough of – nuts, seeds, fiber, fruits, and veggies. You need 25 grams of fiber a day, an ounce of nuts and nine fist fulls of fruits and veggies a day.

For the new study, Afshin’s team used published nutrition surveys to look at typical dietary in-takes across 195 countries, plus published research on the relationship between diet factors and disease risks. Previous research has linked tobacco use to 8 million deaths per year worldwide and high blood pressure to just more than 10 million deaths.  

Not surprisingly, there were differences in the typical diet across world regions: People in the United States and Canada tended to eat the most processed meats and packaged foods. But consumption of sugary drinks and sodium was too high in nearly all world regions, the researchers noted. Diet-related deaths from type 2 diabetes complications were highest in the United States and Canada. And healthy foods were shortchanged almost universally, with a few exceptions: People in Central Asia tended to eat enough vegetables.

Unbalanced diets were a health threat everywhere. Oceania and East Asia had the highest proportion of diet-related deaths from heart disease. 

The impact of diet was seen not only in death rates, but in quality of life, according to Afshin.

In 2017, poor diets were associated with 255 million disability-adjusted life years – a summary of overall life years lost, plus time lived with a disability. 

The analysis pointed to some eating habits with particularly strong links to higher death rates: diets high in sodium; those low in whole grains, fruits and vegetables; and nuts and seeds. The opposite of those choices turn genes off that age you, and turn genes on that produce proteins that keep you younger and with less inflammation, cancer, heart disease, stroke, dementia, wrinkles, impotence and arthritis risk. So, add some walnuts and fruit to that evening salad, and veggies to that morning salmon burger, and you’ll be building a stronger genetic foundation.

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