Poor dietary conditions are more threatening to our collective health than tobacco, alcohol, and drugs combined.

By Gillie Houston
Updated May 24, 2017
Poor Diet and Health
Credit: © Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Cruising through the drive-thru a few times a week couldn't possibly do more harm to your body than smoking a cigarette—right? Think again. A new report by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition has found that worldwide, poor dietary conditions—ranging from malnutrition to junk food overindulgence—are more threatening to our collective health than tobacco, alcohol, and drugs combined.

The panel analyzed 250 previously published peer-reviewed studies and articles to draw conclusions about the troubling state of nutrition from nation to nation. According to their calculations, the disease risk factors linked to a person's diet—including high blood pressure, cholesterol, and body mass index, in addition to malnutrition and general dietary risks—resulted in ill health, disability, and death more often than disease risk factors not linked to the diet.

Non-dietary risk factors, including tobacco smoke, air pollution, unsafe sex, and alcohol and drug use, while certainly harmful, paled in comparison to the dietary issues, CNN reports.

"We estimate that one in three people [globally] has a poor diet," says lead author and executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, Dr. Lawrence Haddad.

In Nigeria and Ethiopia, the number of residents with diabetes has been steadily rising, and will nearly double between 2011 and 2030. And while undernourishment might be more commonly associated with the third world nations of sub-Saharan Africa, the growth rate of obesity in men is outpacing malnourishment in many of those areas.

Globally, the obesity rate is growing rapidly, and some experts estimate that the obese population will grow to 3.3 billion—about a third of the world's population—up from 1.3 billion in 2005. The report points out that the rates of obesity and other diseases related to a poor diet are growing more quickly in countries with low gross domestic product, compared with wealthier nations.

However, in many areas of Africa, which has large income discrepancies, starvation is the most prominent health issue, with 45.4 percent of child deaths being attributed to poor dietary conditions.

Haddad suggests that reversing this negative trend could simply require more widespread education about what makes up a healthy diet, as well as government spending towards research and development on vegetables, fruits, and other healthy forms of agriculture.

"They've got to end hunger more quickly and make sure people have a more diverse diet. They've got to put their foot on the accelerator," Haddad says. "But then they've got to put their foot on the brake to stop the increase in ultra-processed food."

So, the next time you're considering a stop at the fast food window, keep this in mind: that super-sized sleeve of fries could be more dangerous than you ever anticipated.