Diets are changing around the world…and not in a good way

Over the past several decades, we’ve seen diets in the United States shift dramatically. Take fat as one example. A hundred years ago, butter and lard were cooking staples. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a crusade to rid the diet of fat and cholesterol. Today, a better understanding and greater appreciation exists for both (just Google the term “healthy fat”).

Related to the issue of fat, two other major shifts occurred. Diets in general are now sweeter and include more processed vegetable oils. We’re now seeing these trends play out in other countries around the world, many of which now face a wave of chronic disease and obesity never seen

A recent study, published in the Lancet Global Health, attempted to depict how diets shifted in 187 countries from 1990 to 2010. The scope of the study is impressive. Researchers evaluated global food and nutrient consumption data by region, country, age and sex from 325 surveys covering 88.7% of the global population. They then created a scoring system based on healthy  and unhealthy diet components. Things like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, fish, and omega-3’s went in the healthy column. Sugary drinks, trans fat, and processed meats fell into the unhealthy category.

(One big caveat before I go into the results. These types of studies are somewhat subjective. The results highly depend on the research design’s underlying assumptions. In this case, two of those big assumptions are how the researchers chose to define “healthy” and “unhealthy” and what dietary components they included under each. I do disagree with several components they included in the unhealthy column, such as cholesterol, unprocessed red meats, and sodium. All three have some essential use in the body. But, let’s proceed anyway. The results are still worth exploring.)

The results of this study are quite interesting. They show that between 1990 and 2010, dietary quality based on the number of healthy items increased. In other words, more people ate more healthful items, whether more fruits, vegetables, fish, etc. This is a good thing. However, they also show an increase in the number of unhealthy food items in the diet, like sugary drinks.

What’s important to note is the type of countries experiencing these trends. Higher income countries showed greater improvements in diet pattens based on the number of healthy items consumed. Many of the poorest countries, on the other hand, didn’t see these improvements. Most regions experienced increases in the number of unhealthy items in the diet, the greatest of which were seen in middle-income countries, such as Russia and Brazil.

trends in dietary quality

What does all this mean? Well, it means that many other countries around the world now face (and will even more so in the future) similar challenges as the US with worsening diets. And public health experts are predicting its this decline in diet quality around the world that is likely to contribute to an unprecedented wave of diet-related chronic disease.

Our public policy and individual behavior decisions will be what determines whether this wave is a ripple or a tsunami. As the great Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine.”


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