Mom Was Right, Eat Your Veggies

What the Recent Lancet Study Can Teach Us About Risk Reduction in Alzheimer’s

For the first time in recorded human history, more adults worldwide are now obese than underweight. This is not news. Aggressive marketing is to blame—big food corporations deliberately trying to get you to consume sugary drinks and highly processed, high calorie, poor nutrient food. This is not news either. We’ve been seeing what happens to traditional cultures and their waistlines the minute they are introduced to multinational conglomerate junk food for years.

What is news—what is, in fact, big news—is the effect of all this unhealthy eating on human mortality. In a study published last week in the Lancet, poor diet—which researchers define as diets that skimp on vegetables, fruit, fish, seeds, and nuts in favor of sugar, salt, and trans fats—is responsible for one fifth of all deaths around the world. That’s 11 million premature deaths worldwide due to people reaching for, say, potato chips instead of pistachios.

Ten million of these deaths are due to cardiovascular disease. 913,000 were killed by cancer. And 339,000 were felled by Type 2 diabetes. The study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that citizens in countries that favored Mediterranean-style diets, including France, Spain and Peru, had the lowest rates of diet-inflicted mortality while those whose diets contained fewer vegetables, nuts and seeds had the highest rates, sometimes by a factor of ten. Uzbekistan, for example, had 892 deaths per 100,000 people. Israel, where cucumbers, tomatoes, hummus, and whole grains are plentiful in so many traditional dishes, had only 89 deaths per 100,000.

While researchers did not study the effect of all of this bad eating on the number of Alzheimer’s patients in the world, what we now know about the link between poor diet and cognitive decline should set off alarm bells in all of us. Each of us makes choices every day about what to put in our mouths, and those choices—though we assume ourselves to have free will—are often subconsciously affected by what we see on TV, in our own homes, and even in the aisles of grocery stores. Next time you go to the grocery store, in fact, notice where the healthy foods are located: on the perimeter of the store, not in the aisles. This is deliberate on the part of grocery store corporations as well, a way to get you to blithely drop processed food in your cart without thinking.

What you can do now, in light of this news, is simple. No, don’t go on a diet. Time and again, we’ve seen that subtraction often fails. Instead, think about addition.

Add fruits and vegetables to your repertoire: leafy greens and berries are particularly good. Eat more nuts: almonds, cashews, pistachios, macadamia nuts, and walnuts are all healthy, each with its own benefits. When you order a sandwich at a deli, choose whole grain breads instead of white. Serve quinoa and whole grain rice with dinner instead of white rice or white pasta. Add flax seeds, chia, hemp, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds to your salads. If the choice on the restaurant menu or at the next wedding you attend is between the fish or the beef, please: choose the fish. These small additions, stretched out over the course of your lifespan, have the power to not only keep that span going, they’ve been shown, in conjunction with exercise, stress reduction and sleep, to keep your memories alive, too.

Deborah Copaken
Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken, Head Writer at Neurotrack, is also a New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book and Shutterbabe, among others. Her work appears regularly in The Atlantic as well as in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, The Washington Post, and many others.