Can the food you eat make you live longer (or shorter)? Research says you can.

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By Rod Navajas

In a study published in the Journal Nature Food [1], researchers from the University of Michigan, were able to analyze 5,853 different foods and quantify the life minutes, added or removed, according to the consumption of these foods. 

Although several single nutrients and their effects on life expectancy and burden of disease have already been studied, this is the first time that common foods and their combination of different nutrients, have been classified in a similar fashion.This makes sense, as most frequently we eat foods and dishes that cointain a wide range of different ingredients. Sometimes a certain food may contain ingredients that are highly benefitial to health and others that are not. The foods analysed were then classified according to their net beneficial or detrimental health burden in minutes of healthy life. 

Some of the benefitial nutrients a food contains, includes Omega-3 and fiber while some of the detrimental ingredients include processed meats and trans-saturated fatty acids. 

THE VERDICT

Not surprisingly, foods that are further from their natural state, were found to be the most detrimental. For example, a simple Hot Dog, was found to take away 35 minutes of healthy life per serving, largely due to the detrimental effect of processed meat.

On the other hand, a peanut butter sandwich can add 33 minutes of healthy life, largely due to the nut content. In general, consumption of seafood high in omega-3 (sardines, salmon, mackerel), nuts, fruits and non-starchy vegetables, have a positive impact on added healthy life minutes.  

Comparison between the detrimental and beneficial effects of different foods

TAKE AWAY MESSAGE

To quote Hippocrates: “Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food”. It’s quite clear by now how much nutrition influences someone’s health. Although food selection goes beyond the delivery of nutritional compounds, it’s very wise to have a solid eating behaviour that favours foods that are close to their natural state and includes a wide variery of plant based foods. 

You do not need to ditch all the foods you like either. Small modifications in your dietary behaviour, can have huge impacts on our health. For example, the researchers concluded that substituing 190kcal a day of detrimental foods, such as 20g of processed meats, with 190kcal of benefitial foods, such as nuts, fruits and vegetables, can result in a health life gain of 48 minutes. With ultra-processed foods making up more than half of the total dietary energy consumed in high-income countries[2], it is not sursprinsg that that 88% of the american population is now considered to be metabollic unhealthy[3].    

One advice I always give, is to start looking for the things that are missing in your dietary habits before starting to eliminate potential culprits. This creates a mindset that is inclusive of foods and not the contrary. Starting the day with a nutritious breakfast can set you, physiologically and mentally, for an increased healthy-life expectancy day. 

References

1. Stylianou, Katerina S., Victor L. Fulgoni, and Olivier Jolliet. “Small targeted dietary changes can yield substantial gains for human health and the environment.” Nature Food 2.8 (2021): 616-627.

2. Monteiro, Carlos A., et al. “Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them.” Public health nutrition 22.5 (2019): 936-941.

3. Araújo, Joana, Jianwen Cai, and June Stevens. “Prevalence of optimal metabolic health in American adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016.” Metabolic syndrome and related disorders 17.1 (2019): 46-52.

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