Among key pitfalls in the American diet, consuming too much salt is the leading cause of heart-related deaths, based on a recent analysis of mortality and dietary trends from 2002–2012.
Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this study looked at the association between ten dietary factors and risk for death from heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Factors included consumption of foods and nutrients known to improve heart health, including fruits, vegetables, nuts or seeds, whole grains, polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats from seafood. Analysis also considered unfavorable dietary factors, including consumption of red meats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium.
The goal was to determine which factors have the biggest impact on risk for heart-related death, using multiple data sources on demographics, dietary habits and mortality of U.S. adults from 2002–2012.
Among more than 702,000 heart-related deaths in 2012, researchers found that 45% of deaths were caused by the 10 dietary factors listed above. The highest proportion of deaths were due to excess sodium, which accounted for 9.5% of all heart-related deaths. Other top factors included low intake of nuts and seeds, high intake of processed meats, low omega-3 fats from seafood, low consumption of fruits and vegetables, and high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages.
Interestingly, researchers also note that the proportion of deaths related to certain factors changed significantly over the study period. From 2002 to 2012, the proportion of deaths from excess sugar-sweetened beverages and low polyunsaturated fats, nuts and seeds decreased. During the same period, the proportion of death associated with red meat consumption increased by 15%.
However, the impact of diet also varied significantly within certain groups of adults. Poor diet had a stronger impact on mortality risk among men, blacks and Hispanics, and adults with lower levels of education.
The take-home message, according to experts, is that a large proportion of heart-related deaths are caused by poor diet. Improving diet, especially by focusing on factors that have the strongest impact on cardiovascular risk, could help countless deaths in the United States.
Authors also note that given the design of the study, it doesn’t prove that dietary factors are directly to blame for heart-related deaths. However, similar studies show that diet can reduce risk for heart disease by up to 70%. Experts hope that future studies will continue to explore this association and help inform public health efforts to improve diet and health.