From there, researchers scaled the data to standard serving sizes and created a Health Nutritional Index, which translated the information into minutes of life lost or gained per serving size of each food consumed. It’s an interesting concept, particularly as we can’t say we’ve ever been chewing on something and immediately thought of how many minutes it might be taking off our lives. But as the researchers discovered, a handful of nuts prolongs your healthy life by 26 minutes, and a PB&J sandwich can score you an additional 33 minutes of healthy life. Thanks to omega-3s, sardines in tomato sauce can also see you accumulate an extra 82 minutes of healthy life. The study authors also found that you lose 0.45 minutes per gram of processed meat consumed. And due to trans fatty acids and sodium, something as innocent as a hotdog in a bun can set you back 36 minutes, while chicken wings also take off 3.3 minutes of healthy life.
When it comes to the effect of food choices on the environment, researchers evaluated each food based on 18 environmental indicators like carbon footprint, air pollution and water use impacts. Foods were then coded green for good, amber which indicates slightly detrimental, or red if they had a considerable negative nutritional or high environmental impact. Green zone foods are predominantly nuts, fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and some seafood; amber were poultry, dairy, egg-based foods, cooked grains and vegetables produced in a greenhouse; and red zone include processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, beef, pork and lamb.
As Katerina Stylianou, M.S., who did the research as a doctoral candidate and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, said in a press release: “Previous studies have often reduced their findings to a plant- versus animal-based foods discussion. Although we find that plant-based foods generally perform better, there are considerable variations within both plant-based and animal-based foods.”
Olivier Jolliet, Ph.D., professor of environmental health science at the University of Michigan and senior author of the paper, added: “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.”
It certainly makes for interesting reading and presents an opportunity for many to look for more sustainable food options. As for the minutes of healthy life lost or gained, we’d suggest not to read too much into it. Though interesting, obsessing over food isn’t always healthy. The key takeaway is simply to make those healthy, more sustainable choices where possible. Your body - and the environment - will thank you.