Researchers from the University of Oxford say their findings underscore the need for more specific government health targets on diet, equivalent to those already in place for smoking.
The investigators used data from the World Health Organization's burden of disease project, calculating the proportion of ill health and deaths attributable to food. The definition included food poisoning as well as dietary habits.
They then carried out an extensive review of published studies on the financial and health costs of disease and deaths related to food consumption, using a composite term to describe the impact of ill health and death, known as DALYs (disability adjusted life years).
They report in the latest issue of Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health that 37 per cent of DALYS were attributable to food related diseases, with just a fraction of this (0.2 per cent) attributable to food poisoning. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes account for most of this.
Diet is not responsible for all cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, which account for 28 per cent of health service costs or a total £18 billion in 2002, but the authors calculate that food accounts for around a third, or 10 per cent of all DALYS, at an annual cost £6 billion.
This is double the cost to the health service of road traffic accidents, over three times the cost of smoking, and significantly higher than the cost of obesity, estimated at £479 million.
The authors admit their calculations are crude, but suggest that they are probably reasonable.
"The estimates suggest that the burden of food related ill health is large, compared with say, smoking, and suggests that [it] has been neglected by health and food policy makers," they write.
The British government is beginning to tackle children's diets with new public health campaigns and is looking at restricting advertising of junk foods. However it already has one of the highest rates of heart disease and obesity in Europe.