Bad food habits that’ll kill you faster than smoking

Remember the days when doctors appeared in TV and magazine ads promoting cigarettes?

People smoked on planes, in classrooms and in the same room as newborn babies.

A lot of people think those days were “the good old days,” but clearly when it comes to smoking — a dangerous habit that can kill you and the people around you — we’re a lot better off now.

Of course, now that smokers are few and far between, people are killing themselves a different way — through diet.

You may think I’m being dramatic when I say that. Eating a donut instead of an apple every day can’t be nearly as bad as lighting up, right? But the latest research shows it may be worse…

Unhealthy eating not only kills more people than smoking, but it also kills more people than smoking and high blood pressure combined…

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Lousy diets kill 11 million people per year

A new study published in the journal The Lancet found that lousy eating kills 11 million people per year. That means one in five deaths is caused simply by eating the wrong foods. That’s more people than both smoking and high blood pressure kill.

But what exactly qualifies as lousy eating?

Well, the study tracked 15 dietary components in 195 countries for 27 years. That included:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Milk
  • Fiber
  • Calcium
  • Seafood omega-3 fatty acids
  • Polyunsaturated fats
  • Red meat
  • Processed meat
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Trans fatty acids
  • Sodium

Some of these components played a bigger role in the rising diet-related death toll than others. In fact, three dietary habits contributed to more than half of these deaths:

  1. Eating too much sodium
  2. Not eating enough whole grains
  3. Not eating enough fruit

Of course, the biggest dietary risk factors for death varied based upon the country. High sodium is a huge problem in Asian countries. In Mexico, however, low nut and seed intake was the worst dietary faux pas. In sub-Saharan Africa, it was not eating enough fruit.

Do you know what the biggest culprit was in the U.S.?

Whole grains. People in the U.S. (as well as many other countries) don’t eat nearly enough whole grains. In fact, research shows that 40 percent of Americans never eat whole grains at all.

Eating too much red meat, processed meat, trans fat, and sugary beverages were linked to a higher death rate in all countries too, of course. But it seemed, in this study anyway, that not eating enough healthy food was riskier than eating too much unhealthy food. Who would’ve thought?

Focus on whole grains (and other healthy foods)

The biggest takeaway from this study is that it’s all well and good to avoid fast food, soda, and sweets…. but you also have to make sure you’re getting enough of the healthy stuff, like fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.

And if you live in the U.S., pay special attention to whole grains. If you’re eating a 2,000 calorie diet, the USDA recommends that you eat six ounces of grains per day. And at least half of those grains should be whole. As a point of reference, an ounce of grains is roughly 16 grams… about a slice of bread, a half cup of rice or a half cup of pasta.

Related: Whole grains for whole body wellness

When it comes to getting enough whole grains, you also have to pay close attention to the ingredient list. Is what you’re eating 100 percent whole grain? Or does it contain a bunch of other ingredients too? If it has a long list of ingredients, how close is the whole grain ingredient to the top of the list?

If the whole grain is not the first or second ingredient on the list, choose something else. Of course, your best bet is to choose real whole grains… no label reading required. Here are some of the healthiest whole grains to add to your plate:

  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Millet
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Quinoa
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Farro


  1. Unhealthy diets now kill more people than tobacco and high blood pressure, study finds — CBS News
  2. Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017The Lancet
  3. A Closer Look Inside Healthy Eating Patterns —
  4. How Much Whole Grain Should You Eat a Day? — SFGate
  5. All About Grains Group —
  6. Whole grains: Hearty options for a healthy diet — Mayo Clinic
  7. The 9 Essential Whole Grain Foods You Need in Your Diet — Cooking Light
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine,, and