Study Calculates Exact Minutes Unhealthy Food Takes from Life

A new study has been making headlines for the fact that it claims a single hot dog can take 36 minutes off your life. While we think it’s interesting, we aren’t sure it’s worth getting worked up about.

This type of study comes around frequently. They have huge flashy headlines about very specific things. And they are scaremongering. As is usually the case, we worry that focusing on these bizarre minutiae can get in the way of trying to eat a diet that is healthy, balanced and overall good for you. We all know hot dogs aren’t a health food.

Researchers wanted to quantify precisely how much time a food could add or subtract from your life. That seems oddly morbid and could promote unhealthy, obsessive eating patterns. The researchers looked at 5,853 foods in the U.S., calculating their health impact in minutes of life per serving. According to their math, the 61 grams of processed meat with the salt and trans fats in a hotdog plus the bun all equaled 36 lost minutes.

We wanted to make a health-based evaluation of the beneficial and detrimental impacts of the food in the entire diet,” Olivier Jolliet, professor of environmental health sciences at the Univ. of Michigan. “For example, 0.45 minutes are lost per gram of processed meat, or 0.1 minutes are gained per gram of fruit. We then look at the composition of each food and then multiplied this number by the corresponding food profiles that we previously developed.”

The researchers say the metric they have created isn’t supposed to make people obsess over food or try to help you live to 100. They intended it to help people make healthy choices. Researchers never get to pick their own headlines. So, the hotdog may be one detail that was plucked out of a much larger piece of work. It is possible that their project is being misconstrued.

But, other numbers from the study are floating around: a PB&J adds 33 minutes to your life. Sardines in tomato sauce will net you a healthy 82 minutes. Chicken wings remove over three minutes. Our question is, can you cancel out the chicken wings and hot dogs with the sardines and PB&J?

Moreover, their math isn’t proven. Marion Nestle, a nutrition and public health professor at New York Univ., pointed out that the numbers haven’t been checked. “Changing a diet to include or exclude any one food is unlikely to make much difference — it’s dietary (and lifestyle) patterns that count. I suppose you could argue that the minutes add up, but that gets into further untested and untestable assumptions.”

While studies like these might be fun to read over, they boil down to common sense. We all know that chicken wings and hot dogs aren’t healthy and oily fish and nut butter have many benefits. Really, at the end of the day, you should follow a healthy diet that is filled with a wide variety of foods. Focusing on these details can leave you obsessing over individual mouthfuls when you should be looking at the larger picture.

Banner image: The BlackRabbit via Unsplash

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