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Consumption of Unhealthy Foods Outpacing Beneficial Dietary Changes Despite Healthier Foods Increasing

Overall diet quality worsened across the world even as consumption of healthier foods increased in many countries, according to a new global report of dietary patterns.

Healthy dietary patterns are a global priority to reduce non-communicable diseases. Yet neither worldwide patterns of diets nor their trends with time are well established.

The first-of-its-kind analysis of international dietary patterns compared trends in intakes of healthy versus unhealthy foods in 187 countries between 1990 and 2010, finding major differences by country and drawing the conclusion that overall diet quality worsened across the world even as consumption of healthier foods increased in many countries.

In the developed world, tobacco (12.2%), high blood pressure (10.9%) alcohol (9.2%), high cholesterol (7.6%) and overweight and obesity (7.4%) are the biggest contributors to disease burden.

Overall, increases in the consumption of unhealthy foods outpaced beneficial dietary changes, especially in middle-income nations, said the research team, writing in The Lancet Global Health.

Led by senior author Dr Dariush Mozaffarian from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the research team said that the findings show that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution to improving diets internationally.

"While it's encouraging to see some improvement in parts of the world, we still have a long way to go," said Mozaffarian. "With this analysis, we're supplying data that support longtime speculation that, globally, our diets are getting worse."

"Cardiovascular disease has always been seen as a disease of affluent and older people in developed nations, yet 80 percent of all Cardiovascular Disease deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries," Philip Poole-Wilson, President of the Geneva-based nonprofit World Heart Federation said in a statement.

"We also show that these changes in dietary patterns vary significantly by country: in some countries, lack of healthy foods is the biggest problem; in others, excess unhealthy foods; and in others, such as the United States, it's both. This tells us there is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving global diets."

By 2030, 50 percent of the world's adult population will be overweight or obese.

Global analysis

The research team, led by scientists at Tufts and the University of Cambridge reviewed 325 dietary surveys, representing almost 90% of the world's adult population, focusing on 17 common foods, drinks and nutrients.

The analysis included healthier options such as fish, fruits and vegetables, and polyunsaturated fat, and unhealthy options such as sodium, cholesterol, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Overall, the team reported that older adults tended to have better quality diets than younger adults, and women tended to eat healthier than men.

However, the team also found important relationships between country income and diet quality -- noting an increase in consumption of healthy foods and nutrients in high and middle-income countries, but little increase in low-income countries.

"At the same time, we saw an even stronger association between national incomes and unhealthy diet patterns," said first author Fumiaki Imamura from the MRC Epidemiology Unit 0 based at the University of Cambridge.

"In other words, people in high income countries, and increasingly middle income countries, are among the biggest consumers of unhealthy foods."

In addition, the authors saw no increase in consumption of healthier food items in the world's poorest regions.

"The lack of improvement in areas like Sub Saharan Africa and the Andean States of Latin America underlines the urgent need to address diet quality in the poorest nations, where rises in obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases are joining undernutrition and nutrient deficiencies as health problems," said Imamura.

"If we don't step up efforts to improve the current food supply, we could see the same turn toward nutrient-poor, processed foods as we've seen in China, India and other middle income countries where we saw the largest increases in consumption of unhealthy foods."

Mozaffarian said these findings from the study can be used to inform policies and prevention efforts aimed at improving dietary patterns to reduce the healthcare costs and other burdens of poor quality diets.

The Lancet Global Health

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