Every time you queue in line at the hot dog stand, it’s not just wasting time standing idle. According to a new study by health and nutrition scientists at the University of Michigan, a single hot dog could take 36 minutes off your life due to the ill effects of highly processed foods. On the other hand, the same study found that fresh foods like fruits, nuts, legumes, and non-starchy vegetables add valuable moments to your lifespan with each bite.
The researchers led by Olivier Jolliet, professor of environmental health sciences at Michigan University, analyzed 5,853 foods found in the diets of Americans and compared how healthy or unhealthy they were using a single standardized measure: time added to or removed from our lifespan.
In order to index the beneficial and detrimental health burden of each food, the researchers used the most recent nutritional scientific literature to estimate morbidities associated with certain classes of foods. For instance, the authors of the study assumed 0.45 minutes are lost per gram of processed meat. Conversely, 0.1 minutes per gram of fruit are added to your lifespan when you consume these foods.
The number of healthy minutes of life gained or lost per serving of food is measured by the Health Nutritional Index (HENI), which the researchers introduced to the scientific literature.
“HENI takes into account 15 dietary factors from the Global Burden of Disease, which studies the burden of disability and death from a number of causes. These cover health benefits associated with food containing milk, nuts and seeds, fruits, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids from seafood, fibers and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and health damages associated with food containing processed meat, red meat, trans fatty acids, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium. For each of these dietary factors, we estimated the healthy minutes of life lost or gained per gram of food consumed,” wrote Katerina Stylianou, a research associate at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the director of public health information and data strategy at the Detroit Health Department.
Using these estimates, the researchers calculated, for instance, that a standard beef hot dog on a bun takes 36 minutes off your life, considering its high content of processed meat, sodium, and trans fatty acids.
If this assumption reflects reality, it spells very bad news for professional competitors in hot dog eating contests. Miki Sudo, who won every edition of the woman’s competition at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest since 2014, with an average of 40 hot dogs eaten per contest, could have lost 10,080 minutes or seven days of her life. That’s not counting the hot dogs she ate to train for the famous competition, which takes place every 4th of July in New York City. In 2020, the men’s competition was won by Joey Chestnut, who set a new record by eating 75 hot dogs at the cost of 2,700 minutes of his lifespan.
Other popular processed foods that may shorten your life include bacon (6 minutes and 30 seconds per serving), pizza (7 minutes and 8 seconds), and double cheeseburgers (8 minutes and 8 seconds). On the opposite end of the spectrum, foods that add to your lifespan include salmon (13 minutes and 5 seconds per serving), banans (13 minutes and 30 seconds), and avocados (2 minutes and 8 seconds).
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich surprisingly adds 33 minutes and 6 seconds to your lifespan, thanks to the nut butter that is rich in healthy fats, protein, and fiber. Seafood ranges from about 10 minutes of extra life to about 70 minutes, a broad range that is due to the healthy omega-3 fatty acid content that can vary wildly from fish to crustaceans.
These estimates are not meant to be exact, but rather to serve as a guideline to help consumers make more healthy choices for their diet. Every individual is different after all, and that includes their reaction to certain foods. Modern nutritional research unanimously agrees that ultra-processed foods significantly increase the risk of premature death, being associated with cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The takeaway is to stop eating processed foods, not do the math every time you feel guilty for eating a hot dog with way too much topping. Combining burgers with peanut butter servings so they cancel each other out is likely a very bad idea and would be missing the point of these findings.
The HENI index was described at length in a study published in the journal Nature Food.