A woman preparing for International Women’s Day in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Diet, disease and development

Studying how diet affects health costs a lot and takes a long time

The effects of diet on health are not usually immediately evident, but they work in the long term alongside other influences like exercise or smoking. Understanding the effects of diet requires long-term studies on large numbers of people and careful statistical analysis. Such epidemiological studies show that diet affects the risk of many cancers, heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. They reveal the swings and roundabouts of diet – for example, eating lots of red meat increases the risk of bowel cancer, while upping your fibre intake can reduce it.

Studies to tease out the details are getting larger. The EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study, across ten countries in Europe, is following 500,000 people for at least ten years. This will show up a whole range of risk factors for cancers, especially diet, which varies widely across the countries involved. Diet also influences early development. This extends beyond infancy, when poor diets slow normal weight gain. Being underweight in adolescence can delay puberty, and women who become seriously underweight commonly stop having periods. People classed as underweight, obese or overweight by their BMI have higher death rates than those with BMIs in the normal range.

Lead image:

DFID – UK Department for International Development/Flickr CC BY


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Food and Diet’ in June 2011 and reviewed and updated in August 2016.

Ecology and environment, Health, infection and disease
Food and Diet
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development