If you thought counting calories was the only way to gamify your food and drinks consumption, then here’s something worth considering.
A new study from experts at the University of Michigan created a standardised way of assessing the carbon footprint and nutritional impact of almost 6 000 foods, and has put minutes of your life lost and gained to all your favourite snacks.
For example, one hotdog can shorten a person’s life by 36 minutes, while a portion of nuts can add almost 26 minutes to someone’s life, according to the study.
The study uses a Health Nutritional Index, as reported by The Telegraph, which provides some of the first concrete numbers for the health burden of various food choices:
“For example, we found that, on average, 0,45 minutes are lost per gram of any processed meat that a person eats in the US,” the study authors wrote.
“The 61 grams of processed meat in a hotdog sandwich results in 27 minutes of healthy life lost due to this amount of processed meat alone.
“Then, when considering the other risk factors, like the sodium and trans fatty acids inside the hotdog – counterbalanced by the benefit of its polyunsaturated fat and fibers – we arrived at the final value of 36 minutes of healthy life lost per hotdog.”
The Conversation has more on how the researchers crunched the numbers.
Thankfully, minutes can be added to a healthy life expectancy by eating better foods.
The researchers clarify that you don’t need to shift your diet dramatically to get better results:
For example, if a meat-eater decides to replace 10 per cent of their daily calories – 250 for men and 200 for women – with nuts, fruits and vegetables instead of processed meat or beef, they will gain 48 minutes of healthy life every day they stick to this change.
Plus, these small changes can also have environmental benefits, decreasing a person’s daily dietary carbon footprint by a third.
Besides how calorific and nutritionally beneficial or detrimental a food is, the Health Nutritional Index also considers all aspects of a product’s life cycle, including how it is produced, harvested, processed, consumed, and disposed of.
A traffic light rating was given to each food, giving people an idea of what foods were best to eat more of, less of, or about the same of:
Salmon scored well for nutritional impact, achieving a green label and adding 16 minutes to a person’s healthy life. However, it got a red for environmental impact, and therefore a red overall, with people encouraged to decrease their consumption of the oily fish.
Cola, on the other hand, got a red for nutrition – thieving 12,5 minutes of life per drink – but a green for environmental impact, but this still led to a recommendation to decrease how much a person consumes.
Overall, when it comes to environmental sustainability, the research found striking variations both within and between animal-based and plant-based foods:
For the “red” foods, beef has the largest carbon footprint across its entire life cycle – twice as high as pork or lamb and four times that of poultry and dairy.
Thus, you might want to consider eating fewer foods that are high in processed meat and beef, followed by pork and lamb.
Instead, opt for “green” choices, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and low-environmental impact fish and seafood.
All things considered, the study is careful not to reduce findings to a plant versus animal-based foods discussion as there are various ways to respond to your nutritional needs and environmental impact.
The key is in small but mindful choices, and adding variation to your plate.
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