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Diet a top cause of illness and death globally

Timothy Jones
November 29, 2018

Nearly one in five deaths globally can be traced to dietary causes, a study of global nutrition says. Both a lack of food and an abundance of unhealthy food cause dangerous malnutrition.

Child eating a donut
Image: Colourbox

The world is seeing widespread malnutrition caused not only by people not having enough food, but also having too much food that is bad for them, according to the latest Global Nutrition Report.

The independently produced report, which shows Africa to be the region that is hit hardest by both forms of malnutrition, said diet was a higher risk factor for health than air pollution or even smoking.

The report was presented at a global food conference in the Thai capital, Bangkok, on Thursday.

Read more: Breakfast with coffee good way to prevent Type 2 diabetes

Acute famine in Yemen

What are key findings of the report?

  • Malnutrition in all its forms could cost global society up to $3.5 trillion (€3.08 trillion) per year
  • Excessive weight and obesity alone cost $500 billion per year 
  • Some 45 percent of deaths in children under five are caused by undernutrition
  • Almost 16 million children under five are both stunted and wasted (suffering from acute malnutrition)
  • Well over 8 million under-fives are both stunted and overweight
  • Excessive weight and obesity contribute to an estimated 7.1 percent of all deaths

Fatal consequences

"What we're eating is killing us. So something needs to get us back on track with our food system," said Jessica Fanzo, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the US and a lead author of the report.

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The report's authors called malnutrition in whatever form a problem that negatively impacted development "with unacceptable human consequences." They cited increases in childhood deaths and the number of disabled adults as huge burdens on societies and economies.

Read more: Fast and fattening: How frozen pizza is killing Germans

Spotlight on Africa

The report showed Africa to be the region most affected by all forms of malnutrition, sometimes in combination. Thirty of 41 countries hit by three forms of malnutrition — stunting among children, anemia in women of child-bearing age and excessive weight in women — are in Africa, it said. The report also pointed to the fact that while stunting among under-fives was on the decline globally, it was still increasing on the continent, with numbers growing from 50.6 million in 2000 to 58.7 million in 2017.

Read more: Ghana's obesity problem tied in with junk food

What is the solution? The authors of the study suggested taking an integrated approach to all forms of malnutrition from undernutrition to obesity. This would involve promoting the collection and assessment of relevant data; investing in nutrition plans; encouraging healthy diets and committing to nutrition targets.

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