What you choose to eat could add – or reduce – minutes to your life, with the authors of a new study saying that a hot dog could cost you 36 minutes of healthy life while a handful of nuts could help you to gain 26 minutes.

The team from the University of Michigan ranked more than 5,800 foods according to their nutritional disease burden and the impact on the environment.

One key finding was that swapping 10 per cent of daily calories from processed meat and beef with a mix of certain seafood, vegetables, nuts, fruits and legumes could help add 48 healthy minutes per day. Another effect of this change is that it would cut a person’s dietary carbon footprint by a third.

Dr Katerina Stylianou, who was as a doctoral candidate and postdoctoral fellow during the course of the study and is now Director of Public Health Information and Data Strategy at the Detroit Health Department, said: “Generally, dietary recommendations lack specific and actionable direction to motivate people to change their behaviour, and rarely do dietary recommendations address environmental impacts.”

This study was based on a new nutritional index, the Health Nutritional Index, which investigators developed in partnership with nutritionist Victor Fulgoni III, from Nutrition Impact LLC.

The index calculates the positive or negative health burden in terms of minutes of healthy life linked to a serving of food.

To assess a food’s environment impact, they assessed areas including production, processing, manufacturing, consumption and waste.

The researchers made two recommendations:

  1. Reduce consumption of foods with the most negative health and environmental impacts. These include high processed meat, beef, shrimp, followed by pork, lamb and greenhouse-grown vegetables.
  2. Eat more of the most nutritionally beneficial foods, which include field-grown fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and low-environmental impact seafood.

Senior author Olivier Jolliet, professor of environmental health science at the University of Michigan, said: “The urgency of dietary changes to improve human health and the environment is clear. Our findings demonstrate that small targeted substitutions offer a feasible and powerful strategy to achieve significant health and environmental benefits without requiring dramatic dietary shifts.”

The study has been published in the journal, Nature Food.

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