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You Are What You Eat: Is Your Diet Killing You?

To sidestep a diet killing you, eat your vegetables and fruits, choose fish instead of processed meats and shun sugar-sweetened beverages.

For years, researchers have sought to answer the question: Is our diet killing us? Unfortunately, too often what we eat and what we skip contributes to disease and death. We’ve all heard that what we eat can affect our health. It turns out that what we eat is also linked to longevity.

Is Their Diet Killing Too Many People?

The recent research on this question analyzed a randomized trial and 152 observational studies (JAMA Network Open, Aug. 30, 2021). Altogether, these studies included more than six million adults who were followed up for many years. The scientists found remarkable consistency across all these data sets.

People who ate more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, legumes, nuts, and poultry, using vegetable or olive oil rather than butter, were less likely to die from any cause during the follow-up time frame. On the other hand, those who consumed more red meat, high-fat dairy foods, refined grains and sweets like cake, cookies or candy were more likely to perish during the study period. You might well conclude that the standard American diet can be deadly.

The Link Between Diet and Death:

In a previous study, investigators did a sophisticated analysis of data on what, precisely, people ate in both 2002 and 2012 (JAMA, March 7, 2017). They used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for both years. These nutrition scientists paid special attention to 10 foods or nutrients that have been associated with a risk of cardiometabolic disease in earlier studies.

Then they looked at deaths due to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. They found an estimated 45% of these deaths were linked to a diet containing too much salt, sugar and processed meat.

What Should You Be Eating Instead?

If people ate more nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seafood instead, they would be less prone to these lethal cardiometabolic conditions. (Doesn’t that list sound familiar? We love it when the data agree so well.) For adults between 25 and 64, sugar-sweetened beverages were the major dietary culprit. People over 65 encountered the biggest problem by consuming excess sodium.

Differences in dietary patterns by income and ethnic group apparently contribute to higher cardiometabolic mortality in poor neighborhoods. Finding ways to eliminate food deserts and promote fresh whole foods in such areas as well as in affluent regions could help improve health overall. 

We Don’t Want Your Diet Killing You:

Health food enthusiasts have been proclaiming for decades that you are what you eat. The research published in JAMA and in JAMA Network Open confirms that poor diet killing people is a real problem. We must not ignore it. Policies that reduce sugar and salt in processed foods and make fresh food more accessible could make a difference.

If you would like guidance on healthful eating, you may wish to consult our book, Recipes & Remedies From The People’s Pharmacy. Two weeks of menu plans incorporate recipes from nutrition scientists we have interviewed on The People’s Pharmacy. We’ve included many of our own favorites featuring vegetables, fish and whole grains.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • English LK et al, "Evaluation of dietary patterns and all-cause mortality: A systematic review." JAMA Network Open, Aug. 30, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.22277
  • Micha R et al, "Association between dietary factors and mortality from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in the United States." JAMA, March 7, 2017. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.0947
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