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Fresh evidence confirms it: lack of fruit and vegetables is making us sick

We’ve all heard that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but a recent study published in The Lancet shows there’s more than a little bit of truth behind the old adage.

The Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) estimated the burden of death and disability attributed to specific dietary risks across 195 countries and territories. While the dietary factors and their effects on disease mortality are already well known and built into public policy in many countries, examining this relationship on a global scale adds some serious weight to the issue.

“The fact that the gap between healthy foods vs. recommendation (inadequacy) is larger than the gap between unhealthy food intake vs. recommendation (excess) is interesting,” says Providence Health Care dietitian Yeiji Jang. “Many of the policies and interventions, especially in Western countries, focus on limiting the consumption of unhealthy foods rather than promoting intake of healthy foods.”

The study shows that high-income North America (which includes Canada), had the highest intake of processed meats and trans fat, which we know increases risk for heart disease and certain types of cancer. Diabetes also caused the most death and Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) in North America, which is concerning as we know the rate of diabetes is growing, with currently 11 million Canadians living with prediabetes or diabetes.

“Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, North America consumes below optimal levels of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, while we exceed healthy intakes of red meat, processed meat, trans fat, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium,” says Anna McRae, dietitian.

More deadly than smoking

As a result of our tendency to choose red meat over vegetables, the study confirms that poor nutrition is currently much deadlier than smoking. The direct cost of treating smoking-related diseases and conditions are estimated around $6.2 billion (or 6-15% of total health care costs), while diet-related diseases cost far more at roughly $26 billion dollars every year.  

“Many public health and policy makers also have been voicing concerns that the ‘big food’ companies are using tactics similar to those used by the ‘big tobacco’ companies in the past,” says Yeiji. “And yet, the food industry has far fewer regulations and continues to exert significant influence over policy and other decisions that impact people’s health at all levels.”

What does this mean for Providence patients?

Providence Health Care’s dietitians are actively involved both inpatient and outpatient care of patients living with conditions that may be caused, or exacerbated, by poor diet such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, chronic kidney disease and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary (COPD).

“Our dietitians work to not only educate and counsel individual patients, but we also work with the whole interdisciplinary team to help address the medical and psychosocial factors that affect their nutrition,” says Yeiji. “Some of our elderly patients and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition, and therefore at high risk of being affected by these diet-related diseases.”

The findings of the study provide sufficient evidence to start shifting the focus from an emphasis on dietary restriction to promoting healthy food components, and emphasizing sustainable food systems such as those achieved through predominantly plant-based diets.

How can we prevent diet-related disease?

PHC dietitian Emily Zamora recommends the following:

  • Eating more plants and choosing plant based proteins (beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, seeds) more often. Find inspiration by trying new foods and new recipes.
  • Decrease eating out and relying on processed prepackaged foods.
  • Practice meal planning, initiate regular grocery shopping, visit local farmers markets and cook at home more often.
  • Plan potlucks and dinner parties instead of going out.
  • Eat together as a family and explore a variety of cultural foods.

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