Most of us know how important eating right is for our health. More fruits, vegetables, blah blah blah — after awhile, all the food recommendations can start to feel like background noise.
But now, a mind-blowing study has discovered that nearly half of all U.S. deaths in 2012 were caused by cardiometabolic diseases associated with suboptimal eating habits. In other words: there could have been a lower mortality rate with better eating choices. (1)
This fascinating study, published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, looks at the major cardiometabolic diseases — heart disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes. The research team examined how 10 different dietary components affected the likelihood of dying from one of the diseases.
Of 702,308 deaths among adults in 2012 due to a cardiometabolic disease, 45 percent of them were linked with either not eating enough of certain foods and nutrients necessary for staying healthy, or over-consuming other foods.
Ten different foods and nutrients were found to be associated with a higher risk of a cardiometabolic death. With 9.5 percent of cardiometabolic disease–related deaths tied to excess consumption of sodium, this was the nutrient factor most likely to lead to kill a person.
Not eating enough of some foods increased the risk of death from heart disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes, too — nuts and seeds (8.5 percent), seafood-based omega-3 fats (7.8 percent), vegetables (7.6 percent), fruits (7.5 percent), whole grains (5.9 percent) and polyunsaturated fats (2.3 percent).
But too much of foods like processed meat (8.2 percent), sugar-sweetened drinks (7.4 percent) and unprocessed red meat (0.4 percent) raised the risk of deaths as well.
While we’ve always known how important nutrition is in preventing or controlling diseases, this is one of the first studies that provides a clear link between what we’re eating as a country and why we’re dying from cardiometabolic deaths.
Although the numbers are averages across different demographic groups and don’t consider other factors that might increase or decrease an individual’s risk (like physical activity or genetic factors), the data is still powerful. It seems pretty clear: if we want to lower the mortality rate, we need to change the way we eat.
How Better Nutrition Can Address Cardiometabolic Disease-Related Deaths
The researchers identified 10 different nutrients and foods that were linked to cardiometabolic deaths. Let’s unpack each of these separately.
Excess consumption of sodium. The highest percentage of cardiometabolic disease-related death was linked to too much sodium in diets. Generally, this doesn’t mean you have a heavy hand with the salt shaker. What’s normally to blame in this case is processed foods. Preservatives are added to packaged foods to ensure that they still taste the way they should when you eat them months (even years) after they’ve been produced. Many of them are sodium-based.
And when you eat out at restaurants, including fast food restaurants, you also have no control over what ingredients they’re using and how much; just one more reason to avoid eating fast food. In fact, according to the CDC, more than 75 percent of the sodium we consume comes not from table salt, but from processed and restaurant foods. (2)
Nuts and seeds. If nuts have been relegated to just trail mix, it’s time to start chowing down on them. A lack of nuts and seeds increases your risk of cardiometabolic diseases and, according to the CDC, only about four in 10 Americans are eating them daily. (3)
People often stay away from nuts because they’re high in calories, but that’s a short-sighted view, as nuts provide a range of healthy benefits, from antioxidants that help prevent cancer to lowering cholesterol and combating depression.
Seafood omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are “essential” because our body cannot produce them; we must rely on foods that are rich in omega-3s to get our fill. One of the best sources is wild-caught, fatty fish. Omega-3s are known to reduce inflammation, lower the risk of heart disease and lower bad cholesterol levels, stabilize blood sugar levels, which can prevent diabetes and improve overall cardiovascular health. It seems logical, then, that not getting enough of this nutrient in our diets would lead to a higher mortality rate.
Vegetables and fruits. We know that we should be eating fruits and vegetables daily, but most of us are not. In fact, only one in 10 Americans eats enough fruits and vegetables. Just 13 percent of us are eating the one and a half to two cups of fruit that’s recommended by dietary guidelines. And when you look at vegetables, it’s even more dismal; fewer than 9 percent of Americans eat the two to three cups of veggies we’re meant to be consuming. (4)
Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, nutrients and other healthy components we need to lower the mortality rate and maintain are health. It’s frightening that so few of us are getting the servings we need to protect us against disease.
Whole grains. This is a trickier one, because so many of us are sensitive to gluten and grains in general have received a bad rap in the past few years. But if you do not have issues digesting gluten, eating whole-grain foods, when consumed in moderation, can provide lasting benefits.
In fact, whole grains can reduce the risk of obesity, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. (5) They are full of fiber, minerals and vitamins, unlike refined grains, like white rice and pasta, which are nutritionally empty. I find the best forms to be sprouted grain like Ezekiel bread.
Polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats can come from unhealthy sources, usually in the form of oils like canola, vegetable or safflower, which are made from GMO ingredients. But polyunsaturated fats are also found in fish like salmon and mackerel, and nuts and seeds. Getting enough polyunsaturated fats from quality sources can lower levels of bad cholesterol and provide essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot produce on their own.
Processed meats. These meats, which include things like sausages, salami, pepperoni and hot dogs, have already been identified by the World Health Organization as a risk factor for colon cancer. But eating too much processed meats is also linked to death from cardiometabolic disease. These meats are often packed with sodium (preservatives strike again) and nitrates.
Sugar-sweetened drinks. This is a doozy. Sugary drinks are the leading source of added sugars in American diets. In fact, 49 percent of adults and 63 percent of young people drink a sugar-sweetened drink every day. (6) These drinks contribute to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, weight gain, kidney problems, tooth decay and cavities and gout. You may be surprised to find out all the ways sugar destroys your body.
Unprocessed red meat. While processed meats account for a higher percentage of cardiometabolic deaths, unprocessed red meats play a role, too. Eating red meat can be part of a well-rounded diet, but it should be eaten in moderation. The type of red meat you’re eating is important, too. I advise against eating any kind of pork (which is classified as a red meat) and choosing lean, responsibly grown beef and bison.
Looking at these altogether might seem overwhelming. But when you consider the fact that these are all foods and nutrients you should be eating or avoiding to address heart disease, type-2 diabetes and stroke, it makes sense.
Want to Lower the Mortality Rate & Live Longer? Take These 7 Nutrition Steps
If you’re ready to lower the mortality rate and decrease your risk of cardiometabolic diseases, here are some simple ways to implement the nutritional suggestions into your daily life — no stress necessary!
1. Skip the excess sodium. Avoiding processed foods is the easiest way to do this. An added bonus is that you’ll also be reducing added sugars, which sneak up in everything from bread to jarred pasta sauce. That doesn’t mean you need to give up treats and convenience.
Making batches of freezer meals means you’ll have homemade convenience food ready for eating on those lazy nights when takeout seems like the only option. Healthy snacks like spicy kale chips and chocolate banana muffins allow you to have treats without the icky additives.
2. Chow down on more nuts and seeds. One of the easiest ways to get more nuts and seeds into your diet is to portion them out in re-sealable bags and enjoy them as snacks when you’re at work or on the go. I also love adding a handful to organic yogurt or kefir or sprinkling walnuts and almonds on salads.
If you’re not too fond of the crunch, you can also enjoy nut butters (opt for the ones with just one ingredient) with slices of your favorite fruits and veggies or add a spoonful to smoothies.
3. Get your fish on. Adding just one or two servings of fatty fish a week gives you all the benefits of omega-3s. Here, you’ll want to make sure you’re choosing the right fish, too. Tilapia, eel and farmed salmon are all varieties to stay away from.
My list of 17 fish you should never eat — plus healthier options — will steer you in the right direction. Eating more fish also ensures you’re getting enough polyunsaturated fats from good-for-you sources instead of from GMO-laden oils.
4. Incorporate more fruits and veggies into your diet. When we set our minds to it, most of us don’t have trouble adding more fruit into our diet, but our veggie intake remains stubbornly low. If you’re struggling to get more veggies into your diet, smoothies and juices are a great idea.
This anti-inflammatory juice packs in celery, cucumber, spinach, green apple and pineapple for a fresh and tasty drink, while orange carrot ginger drink is loved by all. Stir fry dishes are an easy way to add more veggies into your main meals, or you can start focusing more on making veggie-based side dishes, like baked asparagus or roasted acorn squash.
5. Steer clear of processed meats. When it comes to processed meats, I advise you to steer clear of them. In the deli aisle, low-sodium, organic roasted chicken and turkey are still decent options, although you can also roast and slice the meats yourself for a more cost-effective (and tastier!) option.
If you can’t resist the thought of giving up bacon or sausages, choose better-for-you options and brands instead. Turkey and chicken sausages that are free from preservatives and nitrates are a better choice, while turkey and beef bacon is still quite tasty.
6. Goodbye, soda. For some people, giving up sugary drinks is harder than tackling many of the things on the list, probably because giving up sugar can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Swap out your soda or fruity drinks for tea lightly sweetened with raw honey or coffee. Have lemon water or add a cucumber to plain water to help liven it up, or you can turn to soda water for that carbonated experience without soda’s ugly side effects.
While the first few days of a sugar drink-free life will be rough, you’ll find that after a week or so, the worse of the withdrawal symptoms will be gone. No more mid-afternoon sugar highs or crashes, either!
7. Choose grass-fed beef. Red meat has its place in a healthy diet, but I always suggest choosing grass-fed beef. When compared to other types of beef, grass-fed is known to reduce heart disease, is likelier to be free of hormones and antibiotics and is better for the environment. The same can’t be said for conventional beef.
The Exercise Component
Getting your diet under control is a key part of lowering the mortality rate and decreasing your risk of cardiometabolic diseases, but you’ll also need to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. It’s one of the best ways to keep chronic disease at bay, and you only need 40 minutes a day, three to four times a week, to reap the benefits. You can split up the 40 minutes whatever works best for you, whether it’s one workout or a few mini bursts throughout the day.
I prefer HIIT workouts, which are intense cardio workouts that are short in time but high in energy. Vinyasa yoga workouts or swimming are good options if you’d like something less intense or low-impact. And of course, you can try these 20 exercise hacks to sneak more exercise into your day throughout the week.
Ultimately, while good eating habits will absolutely reduce the risk of disease, combining a better diet with exercise is the most powerful combo at our disposal to lower mortality rates and stay healthy.
For most people, adding more or less of these foods won’t require medical intervention, though if you’re on any prescriptions or have any chronic conditions, you should speak with your doctor. What I see happen frequently is that people attempt to change everything at once. When they almost inevitably fail, it can be difficult to bounce back and try again.
I recommend a slow and steady approach. After all, this isn’t a fad diet; you want to instill habits that will make it easy for you to eat this way for the long haul. If you have two sodas a day, for example, eliminate one and replace it with a tea for 3–5 days. Once that’s happened, eliminate the second soda and have your go-to healthy drink ready to replace it, like a sparkling water with lemon.
When you feel comfortable in that change, move on to the next one and take it on gradually. Giving your body time to adjust (and being understanding of yourself if you backslide) will lead to more permanent changes.
Having a mindful eating plan that you’ve prepared for is also one of the biggest ways to be successful in a new eating plan. Writing out a menu and prepping the ingredients over the weekend, for instance, is a great way to keep yourself on track. And when I say write a menu, I mean it!
Include snacks, drinks and any social obligations that include food. This eliminates the “what am I going to eat today?” trap that haunts so many of us. Not only will you already know what you’re eating and drinking, but you’ll have everything at your fingertips to make it happen. Will you sometimes ignore it and order that hamburger? Probably. But you’ll be in a much better position to get right back on track.
- Nearly half of all deaths in the U.S. are caused by cardiometabolic diseases that can be addressed with better eating habits.
- Researchers identified 10 foods and nutrients that Americans are either eating too much of or not enough. This is what’s killing us.
- By making a few changes to our diets, we can drastically reduce our risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, which account for almost 50 percent of deaths in America.
- Adding an exercise component to our daily routine works hand-in-hand with a better diet to protect us against disease and chronic illness.
- Making a plan for healthy eating will help you be successful in your diet changes, but if you’re on medication, you should see your doctor before making any drastic changes.