Malnutrition now poses a greater risk to health on a global level than unsafe sex, alcohol, drugs, and tobacco combined.

By Kylie Gilbert
September 30, 2016

We grew up learning that cigarettes, alcohol, and unsafe sex are pretty much the worst possible things we can do to our bodies. And your health teacher wasn't wrong. But on a global scale, we've been underestimating a silent killer: the food we eat every day. That's because poor diets lacking in nutrition pose a greater risk to our health than all three of those risky activities combined, says a new report by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (Glopan) which was presented to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization last week.

This doesn't mean your love of McDonald's is worse for you than your (deadly) smoking habit. But when we look at the bigger picture, malnutrition associated with "low-quality diets" is the number-one risk factor in the global burden of disease, says the report, which analyzed 250 data sources and peer-reviewed articles. The researchers defined "low-quality diets" as those containing insufficient calories, vitamins, and minerals or, on the flip side, diets that contain too many calories and too much saturated fat, salt, and sugar. And the risk that these crappy diets pose to mortality and morbidity is now greater than the combined risks of unsafe sex, alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Yikes.

In fact, if we continue on the unhealthy eating track we're on, the researchers estimate that the number of overweight and obese people will grow from 1.3 billion in 2005, to 3.3 billion globally by 2030-that'll be one-third of the world's total population. (This also translates to a financial burden equivalent to that of experiencing a global financial crisis every year.) And it's not just limited to certain parts of the world: Diet- and obesity-related chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension are increasing in every region-and most rapidly in low- and middle-income countries, the report states. (More on the global obesity problem here.)

While the boom of organic, gluten-free foods here in the U.S. may make it seem that we're doing better, it's not the case. Nor is there a connection between higher incomes and a healthier, quality diet. "While many people today have better diets than before, the intake of foods that undermine diet quality has increased even faster," the press release explains. Unsurprisingly, a big culprit is ultra-processed food and beverages, which have seen a spike in sales in high-income countries. (In fact, according to new research, most American adults would fail a healthy lifestyle test.)

To put this malnutrition and obesity crisis in perspective: "The level of effort required to address this problem is not dissimilar to the sort of effort that has been used by the international community to address the issues of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other pandemic diseases," says Sir John Beddington, former chief scientific advisor to the UK government and co-chair of Glopan.

The report outlines recommendations to policymakers on the global and national level to help improve the affordability and availability of fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. They're also urging governments to develop policies that help incentivize the production of high-quality foods and regulate the way products are labeled and advertised to help consumers make smarter decisions.

Let's hope they're listening up.