On this culinary episode of Lifespan News, we discuss a new study showing how much lifespan certain foods add or subtract.
It’s been all over the news and all over the internet – eating a hot dog will take 36 minutes off your life. But what does the study actually say, and what does it mean for you? Well, it’s more optimistic than the headlines would have you believe.
The source for all of these articles is a University of Michigan study, which was recently published in the journal Nature Food. While hot dogs made the headlines, the study itself was far more broad. Researchers ranked 5,853 foods based on their impact on both human health and the environment. This resulted in what investigators called the Health Nutritional Index, or HENI, which attempted to quantify the health effects of various foods based on how many minutes eating a standard serving would increase or lower life expectancy.
The range ran from losing 71 minutes of life for each serving of corned beef with tomato sauce and onion, in which the processed meat overpowered the benefits of the tomato and onion, to gaining 82 minutes of life per serving of sardines with tomato-based sauce.
The researchers then factored in the environmental impact of the foods, taking into account production, processing, preparation, waste, and more.
Ultimately, the researchers were left with three categories of foods. The green category contains foods that were deemed beneficial to human health, and of low impact to the environment. This primarily featured plant-based foods, including many nuts, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Some seafood also made the cut.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the red zone foods with severe negative health or environmental impact. Foods in this category included beef, pork, lamb, cheese-based foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
In the middle was the amber zone, featuring foods that didn’t meet the red or green criteria. This consisted of most poultry, dairy products, cooked grains such as rice, and greenhouse vegetables.
Now, obviously these numbers are much more of a general guide to which foods should be eaten or avoided. If these numbers were entirely accurate, competitive eaters such as Joey Chestnut, who has the record for eating 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes, might seriously reconsider attempting to defend his title. On the other hand, if sardines in tomato sauce really increased your healthy lifespan by 82 minutes, you could theoretically live forever by eating 18 cans of them a day. We do not recommend this. Clearly there are many other variables at play, and nutritional needs vary from person to person.
So what’s the takeaway here? The researchers conclude by pointing to the fact that their findings demonstrate that “small, targeted substitutions offer a feasible and powerful strategy to achieve significant health and environmental benefits, without requiring dramatic dietary shifts at once” and that this this approach, if broadly adopted, “could lead to personalized diet solutions where the consumer identifies trade-offs and substitutions they are willing to make (for example, less processed meat and more seafood).”
They also say that they hope their work inspires and empowers a transition towards healthy and environmentally sustainable diets. We agree.
This research, and the development of the Health Nutritional Index, gives us new insight into the impact of our food. As this work progresses, more data-points and factors could be included, improving our understanding and enabling us to make more informed decisions.
Make sure to subscribe so we can keep you updated, and we’ll see you in the next episode.
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