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A hot dog can take 36 minutes off of your life — seriously.

The quality of meals affects longevity. A new study shows that certain dietary choices give us more minutes, hours or even years of life, while others shorten our lifespans. Moreover, health choices affect the future of the planet.

The new data will convince you to lay off the beef jerky when you get comfortable watching television or tap to try the trendiest smartphone games. Researchers from the University of Michigan have shown that veggies, fruits and nuts do not only make you healthier — they are also the most sustainable foods.

The Research Team

For most of us, measuring the importance of buying chicken wings or mixed greens is impossible. This gap has now been filled. The study published in the Nature Food journal was conducted by experts in nutrition, environmental life cycle, food sustainability, environmental health and epidemiology.

The team looked at 15 factors related to dietary risk and 18 environmental indicators. Over 5,800 foods were evaluated, classified and ranked. Researchers wanted to identify dietary changes that enhance health while bringing down the environmental impact.

Impressive Takeaways

Finally, we have exact numbers to measure the health burden of common dietary choices. The benefits and drawbacks of each item were evaluated based on their composition. The team developed a unique indicator based on the Global Burden of Disease — The Health Nutritional Index — to convert this into minutes of life lost or gained per serving size. Here are some of the most consequential findings:

  • Every gram of any processed meat consumed in the US deprives you of 0.45 minutes of healthy life — i.e., good-quality life without diseases.
  • A hot dog can take away 36 minutes of healthy life.
  • Eating 30 grams of seeds and nuts may add 25 minutes to your healthy lifespan.
  • If you substitute 10% of calories gained from beef and processed meats for a mix of veggies, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and specific seafood, you may gain 48 minutes of a healthy life, while your dietary carbon footprint will go down by 33%.
  • Elimination of processed meats and cutting down on sodium gives the largest gain in a healthy life.

Environmental Impact

The difference between animal-based and plant-based diets is astonishing. Beef is the most damaging type of red meat food in terms of carbon footprint. Lamb and pork cause half the damage, while the impact of poultry and dairy is four times less. Avoiding processed meat and reducing sodium consumption has far-reaching consequences.

The researchers considered different dimensions of sustainability. Overall, veggies (not greenhouse-grown), fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, low environmental impact fish and seafood are the best. These categories offer options for all cultures, tastes and budgets.

The Bottom Line

Targeted choices can make a big difference. The study highlights the value of small changes one meal at a time. What we eat affects our health and the future of the planet. Definitely, this is some food for thought.

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