Two years ago next week, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” (aka the “Sustainable Development Goals” or “SDG”), a broad list of ambitions aimed at ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all—within 15 years.
Number two on the list was related to food and health: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” (That, just under the SDG’s very modest #1 priority, which is to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.”) While clearly not a strategic proclamation or indication of feasibility, the list was nonetheless symbolic in its intent to do something about what and how the world eats—or doesn’t. (Two short years later, as persistent famine in four nations threatens 20 million human lives, the SDG list feels more symbolic than ever. But that’s another story we’ll continue to cover.)
Now, as the General Assembly convenes this week in New York City, the results of a series of five studies funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, reveal that the global diet is one of those intractable problems that also appears to be killing us at a rate of one in five.
The study, titled “The Global Burden of Disease” and published Saturday in medical journal The Lancet, tracks morbidity and mortality from major diseases and is the most comprehensive study of its kind to date. It measures 37 of the 50 health-related indicators on the SDG list over the course of nearly three decades for 188 countries and, on the basis of past trends, predicts indicators like years of life lost or years lived with a disability to the year 2030.
First, some good news, according to commentary on the research from The Lancet’s editors: Overall, global mortality rates have decreased over the past five decades and we’re generally becoming healthier, even if that means we’re also living longer with more disease. And yet, 72 percent of all deaths last year were caused by non-infectious (read: often preventable) diseases like cancer and diabetes. Ischemic heart disease—the term given to describe problems resulting from narrowed arteries—was the leading cause of premature death in 2016. And that’s not new. Deaths attributed to heart disease have risen steadily over the course of the decade from 2006 to 2016, increasing by 19 percent globally.
“Despite progress on reducing deaths, [a] ‘triad of troubles’—obesity, conflict, and mental illness, including substance use disorders—is preventing further progress,” wrote the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which coordinates the GBD study, in a release, saying excess body weight was “one of the most alarming risks in the GBD.”
To put it more starkly: “The rate of illness related to people being too heavy is rising quickly, and the disease burden can be found in all sociodemographic levels. High body mass index (BMI) is the fourth largest contributor to the loss of healthy life, after high blood pressure, smoking, and high blood sugar.”
But the GBD findings on obesity are clearly specific to the overnourished, western world. So what about malnutrition? According to UNICEF, “undernutrition contributes to nearly half of all deaths in children under 5.” Well, there’s “poor diet” (behavioral) and then there’s “poor diet” (circumstantial).
Even as the General Assembly gathers amid a fog of existential threat—conflict, climate change, mutually-assured destruction—it’s worth thinking about how much air time the results of a study (however far-reaching) on the other, and to a great extent preventable, ways we’re killing ourselves is really likely to get.