Will a hotdog really take minutes off your life? Original paper

Compared to most animal-based foods, foods made from nuts, fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and some seafoods increased lifespan and had a minimal carbon footprint. While the authors assigned minutes of healthy life gained or lost to servings of various foods, these “minutes” were just a handy way to visualize the data; they were not supposed to be taken literally, as did the media when they talked of predicting your lifespan based on your hotdog intake!

This Study Summary was published on October 3, 2021.


Food production is among the largest drivers of climate change, due to its contributions to greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss, and freshwater use.[1] Some foods have a lower environmental cost than others, however; there is evidence that plant-based diets might benefit both our planet (by reducing cropland use and greenhouse-gas emissions) and our health (by reducing mortality rates from noncommunicable diseases).[2][3][4]

While public-health recommendations generally focus on dietary patterns, can specific foods affect mortality or environmental outcomes?

The study

This study assessed dietary recall data from participants in the What We Eat in America 2011–2016 database, assigning 167 common foods a health nutritional index (HENI) score, which quantified the minutes of healthy life gained or lost (from all-cause premature mortality and morbidity) per serving of food consumed. In addition, life-cycle assessments[5] were used to quantify the environmental burden associated with the most consumed HENI foods.

The results

Of all the included foods, a beef hotdog in a bun was associated with the greatest loss of life per serving (−36 minutes), whereas a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich was associated with the greatest extension of life per serving (+33 minutes). Scores for burgers, red meat, and breakfast sandwiches were almost always negative (they decreased lifespan), whereas scores for seafood, fruits, legumes, nonstarchy vegetables, ready-to-eat cereals, and snack bars were positive (they increased lifespan).

The authors then divided foods between green, amber, and red zones, based on their effects on mortality and the environment:

  • Foods in the green zone (foods made out of nuts, fruits, legumes, vegetables, whole grains, and some seafood) had a positive HENI score and were below the 50th percentile for CO2 emissions.
  • Foods in the amber zone (most poultry, dairy products, egg-based foods, cooked grains, and vegetables produced in a greenhouse) had a HENI score between 0 and −3.2 minutes and were between the 50th and 75th percentiles for CO2 emissions.
  • Foods in the red zone had either a HENI score lower than −3.2 minutes (processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages) or were above the 75th percentile for CO2 emissions (beef, pork, lamb, processed meat, cheese-based foods, and some salmon dishes).

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The authors calculated HENI scores for the included foods based on the presence or absence of 16 dietary factors in a given food.

The following factors in a food improved its HENI score (they added minutes of healthy life):

  • Fiber
  • Calcium
  • Milk
  • Polyunsaturated fats
  • Seafood omega−3 fats
  • Fruits
  • Legumes
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds

Conversely, the following factors in a food worsened its HENI score (they removed minutes of healthy life):

  • Sodium
  • Saturated fat
  • Trans fatty acids
  • Processed meat
  • Red meat
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages

It’s unsurprising that a hotdog on a bun would have the worst HENI score after sugar-sweetened beverages’ — it’s high in sodium and saturated fat, its meat is both red and processed, and it’s devoid of most of the factors that improve HENI scores.

While well-intentioned, this classification of nutrients and food groups as “good” or “bad” is simplistic. For example, sodium isn’t inherently unhealthy; it’s an essential electrolyte. Similarly, the health effects of saturated fatty acids (SFAs) depend on the type of SFA and the food source.

Additionally, the authors did not intend for the HENI scores to be taken literally — eating a hotdog will not literally take 36 minutes off your life. Instead, the authors intended the HENI scores to be used to compare foods in a format the average consumer would find easy to understand.

The big picture: While other dietary indices — such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) score, the Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII), the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), and the Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI) — have shown relevancy in predicting health outcomes,[7][8] they serve to assess dietary patterns, rather than individual foods, limiting their utility for consumers.

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This Study Summary was published on October 3, 2021.


  1. ^Walter Willett, Johan Rockström, Brent Loken, Marco Springmann, Tim Lang, Sonja Vermeulen, Tara Garnett, David Tilman, Fabrice DeClerck, Amanda Wood, Malin Jonell, Michael Clark, Line J Gordon, Jessica Fanzo, Corinna Hawkes, Rami Zurayk, Juan A Rivera, Wim De Vries, Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, Ashkan Afshin, Abhishek Chaudhary, Mario Herrero, Rina Agustina, Francesco Branca, Anna Lartey, Shenggen Fan, Beatrice Crona, Elizabeth Fox, Victoria Bignet, Max Troell, Therese Lindahl, Sudhvir Singh, Sarah E Cornell, K Srinath Reddy, Sunita Narain, Sania Nishtar, Christopher J L MurrayFood in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systemsLancet.(2019 Feb 2)
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  6. ^Muralikrishna et alChapter Five — Life Cycle AssessmentScience and Engineering for Industry.(2017-01)
  7. ^Lukas Schwingshackl, Berit Bogensberger, Georg HoffmannDiet Quality as Assessed by the Healthy Eating Index, Alternate Healthy Eating Index, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension Score, and Health Outcomes: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort StudiesJ Acad Nutr Diet.(2018 Jan)
  8. ^Catherine M Phillips, Ling-Wei Chen, Barbara Heude, Jonathan Y Bernard, Nicholas C Harvey, Liesbeth Duijts, Sara M Mensink-Bout, Kinga Polanska, Giulia Mancano, Matthew Suderman, Nitin Shivappa, James R HébertDietary Inflammatory Index and Non-Communicable Disease Risk: A Narrative ReviewNutrients.(2019 Aug 12)