Can Food Impact Your Lifespan by the Minute?

Shandra Martinez

| 4 min read

Can eating a hot dog really shorten your life by more than a half hour? Will munching on a handful of almonds increase your time on Earth by nearly the same amount? A study from the University of Michigan found that certain foods can shorten - or lengthen - your lifespan by the minute. It’s got people thinking more about how certain foods can play very specific roles in our health and longevity.
A couple examples from the study that truly are food for thought:
  • Eating a hot dog can reduce your lifespan by 36 minutes.
  • Eating nuts can increase your lifespan by 26 minutes.

Study reinforces healthy eating behaviors

Shanthi Appelö, a registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, says the biggest take-home message from studies like this is to understand how consistently healthy behaviors can all add up to making a positive difference in how long we live. Using specific lifespan minutes and linking those to particular foods is just one way to drive home the healthy-eating messages we’ve already heard.
“We’ve heard time and time again that eating processed meats and having too much saturated fat, consuming too much sodium, all these things lead to a shorter lifespan or contribute to a shorter lifespan maybe because it increases our risk for cancers, certain diseases, things like that,” Appelö said. “So it’s just putting something into things that we understand, I think.”
The average life expectancy in the United States is about 76 years old, she said, so enjoying a hot dog or two the next time you’re at a ballpark or a backyard party likely won’t make a real dent in your lifespan. But studies like this one are more about awareness of your diet and lifestyle as a whole.
“We have family history, genetics play a huge component into certain disease states. We also have so many different needs as individuals when it comes to different nutrients and how different nutrients affect us,” Appelö said. “But I do like this idea of understanding that these small things, if you’re consistently consuming hot dogs like one a day for the rest of your life, that definitely is going to have a big impact.”

Human health and the environment

The University of Michigan study looked not only at how foods impact the human body, but our environment, too. And there were interesting correlations in the top spots on the good-for-you and bad-for-you findings. For example, in the top category for life-shortening foods were red meat and nitrate-heavy processed meats. The longevity list had legumes, nuts and seeds at the top.
“But if we dive into the environmental piece of it, too, a lot of these are consistent with each other,” she said. “So things that they recommend us consuming less of - these red and processed meats like hot dogs - are also not great for the environment. For example, to raise beef, we’re using a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. It takes a lot of water use and it takes a lot of land use. Sothere’s so many different ways in which our food choices can influence the environment through those. So that falls straight in line with those that impact human health.”
What and how much we eat. Research like this can help reinforce our decisions to eat more of certain foods, and decrease our weekly servings of others. Other things to keep in mind are being deliberate about getting some health-forward foods into our diet each day, and keeping an eye on portion control, Appelö said.
Nutrients to focus on include:
  • Fiber-rich foods that are good for heart and gut health. These include chickpeas, raspberries and avocados.
  • Foods with omega-3s that are important for brain health. These include fish - salmon, sardines, tuna and trout, among others - and plant foods like walnuts and flax seeds.
  • Berries that are rich in fiber and antioxidants. Raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and blueberries get top billing here, either fresh or frozen.
  • Try to eat fish twice a week, nuts five times a week, and eat four to five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Portion size is important, too. Some things to remember:
  • Aim for 4 to 6 ounces of meat, salmon or chicken per serving.
  • Use the fist-sized measurement for fruits and vegetables per serving. For example, if you are adding berries to your morning oatmeal, don’t just sprinkle on a few and call it a serving of fruit. Use a fist-sized amount.
Want to learn more about how food can impact your lifespan? Listen to this episode of  "A Healthier Michigan Podcast" featuring a conversation with Shanthi Appelö, a registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
Photo credit: Getty Images

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