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The 5 foods that take minutes off your life and easy swaps to make A new study has quantified this.

The impact different foods have on our life expectancy, so here's how to stop the clock ticking

Hot dogs have been found to shave 36 minutes off a healthy life expectancy

It will come as no surprise to read that our diets have a marked effect on our long-term health and longevity. But when researchers at the University of Michigan set out to quantify the health impact of different foods, drinks, and snacks, the results were sobering. They created a Health Nutritional Index which assessed the nutritional impact and carbon footprint of almost 6,000 foods and calculated the health burden of each one. Their findings showed that every hot dog a person eats takes a shocking 36 minutes off their healthy life expectancy. Soft drinks (such as coca-cola) shortened life by 12 minutes, bacon by six minutes, and each double cheeseburger devoured shaved off just under nine minutes. The research also revealed that each portion of cheese eaten can take over a minute off a healthy lifespan.

But, before you ditch your weekend rashers, it’s not all bad news – the index also showed that it’s equally possible to add minutes to our healthy life expectancy by eating better foods. For instance, each banana was shown to add 13 and a half minutes to life, as was a portion of baked salmon. Curiously, the researchers also found that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (the study was conducted in America, after all) adds a whopping 33 minutes to live. The study suggests that this is due to the high nut content, as nuts are so good for us. The same can’t be said for a jam sandwich, however.

At this point, you may be wondering: of course, hot dogs shouldn’t be the mainstay of our diet, but surely having one occasionally can’t hurt? The authors of the study have said that the figures don’t translate to wholesale dietary changes, and each food contributes to a “unique equation” that varies person by person. So, no, eating a single hot dog won’t necessarily shave 36 minutes off your life in real-time, but almost all experts agree that the category they fall in – ultra-processed food (UPF) – spells seriously bad news for our health.

A growing body of research links UPFs (which now make up more than half of the average person’s daily calorie intake in the UK) to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. One study from the University of Navarra found that UPFs cause the body to age faster and increase the risk of all-cause mortality.

Increasingly, experts are sending out the message that calories aren’t created equal – it matters where they come from. A landmark study from the US National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases in 2019 fed two groups of participants ‘equally enjoyable’ diets that were matched for calories, sugar, fat, fiber, and macronutrients. The only difference is that one group was fed ultra-processed food and the other unprocessed food.

The results were stark – the ultra-processed group ate an extra five hundred calories per day and put on a significant amount of weight (a kilogram over two weeks). So it pays to be vigilant about what we put on our plates. These are the foods to be wary of – and some equally delicious alternatives.

1. Hot dogs

Hot dogs didn't score well for health or environmental factors

Unfortunately, ultra-processed hot dogs came out on top of the study’s list of dietary villains, with each one said to take 36 minutes off a healthy lifespan. If you’re looking for a healthier barbecue dish, opt for hearty homemade veggie burgers: start with Anna Jones’ ultimate vegetarian burgers packed with portobello mushrooms, haricot beans, and grains.

The study also showed that seafood has longevity benefits, adding five minutes to healthy life expectancy per serving, so you could also consider switching a hot dog for fish or barbecue prawns.

2. Bacon

The study recommends limiting consumption of bacon and other cured meats

Bad news for those who love a bacon sandwich. Cured meats came second in the study’s list of foods to avoid as a portion is said to cost 26 minutes of healthy life expectancy (when both nutrition and carbon footprint are taken into account). An Oxford University study in 2019 found that eating processed red meat just once a day increases bowel cancer risk by a fifth.

Get inventive with plant-based swaps – gently fried porcini or shiitake mushrooms can make a surprisingly meaty bacon alternative.

3. Cheeseburgers

Cheeseburgers were found to have a negative impact on longevity

Unsurprisingly, research shows that cheeseburgers aren’t great for your health. In fact, each double cheeseburger costs 8.8 minutes in healthy life expectancy. The good news is that small, sustainable dietary changes can have a big impact on both individual health and the environment – so, if you’re a meat-eater, consider replacing just a small proportion of your daily calories with fish, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Salmon scored highly for longevity, with each portion adding 13.5 minutes to life – but the researchers noted that it doesn’t score as well for environmental impact.

4. Soft drinks

Soft drinks like coca-cola aren't the healthiest option

Surprise surprise, soft drinks aren’t great for your health, either. As well as taking 12.4 years off a healthy lifespan according to the University of Michigan's study, other research has linked their heavy consumption with an increased risk of bowel cancer, type two diabetes, and heart disease.

No one wants to be smugly told to switch their can of cola for a green tea – but given its manifest health benefits (it’s rich in polyphenols, which protect against heart disease), it’s worth considering. Another study found that good old English Breakfast tea can cut the risk of dementia by half – so put down the can and stick the kettle on.

5. Packaged snacks and bread

Doughnuts and other bakery products didn't fare well in the study

The Health Nutritional Index links ‘sweet bakery products’ and ‘quick bread and bread products’ with modest reductions in healthy life expectancy, and a portion of nuts with a substantial 26-minute increase, so this swap should be a no-brainer.

Snacking on nuts has well-documented health benefits from reducing the risk of heart disease and obesity to promoting healthy cognitive function.


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