There are few simpler pleasures in life than scarfing down a hot dog. Sure, it may not be the healthiest option, but gosh darn it, an undisclosed number of animals gave their lips and feet for that snack, and no mere “calorie count” or “fat content” or “they’re called that because people used to say they contained dog meat” is going to cheapen their sacrifice.
But what if we used a different metric? What if we told you that bunned wiener would bring you precisely 36 minutes closer to your death – would you still eat it?
That number wasn’t chosen at random – it’s from a study published last week in the journal Nature Food. Researchers subjected 5,853 foods to their morbid calculations, ranking them according to their impact on both human health and the environment. While hot dogs may be a casualty of the analysis, there’s good news too: with just minor changes to your diet, the authors say, you can have a big effect on both your health and your carbon footprint.
“Substituting only 10 percent of daily caloric intake of beef and processed meats for a diverse mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and select seafood could reduce, on average, the dietary carbon footprint of a U.S. consumer by one-third and add 48 healthy minutes of life per day,” wrote study authors Olivier Jolliet and Katerina Stylianou for The Conversation. “This is a substantial improvement for such a limited dietary change.”
Here's how it works: first, the health score was calculated. For this, the researchers used a nutritional index called the Health Nutritional Index, which they had previously developed with nutritionist and study co-author Victor Fulgoni III. This was developed using data from a huge epidemiological study called the Global Burden of Disease – and when we say “huge”, we mean it: the GBD covers more than thirty years’ worth of data from every country in the world. With this information, the GBD quantifies not just the prevalence of various health, lifestyle, and environmental factors – including 15 dietary factors – but also the relative harm caused by them.
Using this wealth of information, the team calculated the health burden (or benefit) in minutes of thousands of foods. For example, a hot dog comes out at 36 minutes of life lost, while a portion of cucumber can add nearly ten minutes to your lifespan (conveniently just enough time to eat a hot dog and thus cheat Death out of a whole 26 minutes).
But that wasn’t the end of the analysis –the team also wanted to include environmental considerations. They used a method called IMPACT World+, which measures the life cycle impact of foods from things like production, processing, preparation, consumption, waste, water use, as well as the impact on human health from things like pollution. In total, the researchers used 18 environmental indicators to evaluate the various foods and rank them accordingly.
Finally, by combining these two metrics, the researchers were able to sort them into three color zones: red, yellow, and green. Just like a traffic light, these designations are code for “stop” (like processed meat, which comes with high environmental and nutritional costs), “proceed with caution” (one example: gummy bears, which have a very low carbon footprint and practically no nutritional impact in either direction), and “have at it” (nuts, fruits, field-grown vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and some seafood) respectively.
The team hope that their findings might add some nuance to what is often seen as the all-or-nothing problem of environmentally conscious and healthy eating. While vegan options do “generally perform better” in the analysis, a full dietary conversion isn’t necessarily the only option.
“Previous studies have often reduced their findings to a plant vs. animal-based foods discussion,” the authors said. “[But] there are considerable variations within both plant-based and animal-based foods.”