Many of us are trying to eat a fairly healthy diet. Sometimes we make changes to our diet based on a goal of losing weight, gaining muscle or cutting back on certain ingredients like sugar or gluten due to other health reasons. Sometimes our diet is impacted by our desire to protect the environment or to buy locally grown produce.

The confusing part of trying to eat a “healthy” diet is understanding what “healthy” means. While one person may go on a keto diet to quickly drop pounds, another person may decide to go vegan to save the lives of animals and to help cut down on greenhouse gases. But, is cutting out carbs really necessary? Is giving up meat and dairy really the best decision?

The saying goes that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. If we modify that same saying, what foods are sure to cause the doctor to come running?

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health Sciences revealed that when we eat certain foods, minutes are literally added to our life. On the flip side, eating other foods subtracts minutes from our life. 

The study drew on data from the 2016 GBD study for harmful health effects and dietary risks associated with certain types of food. The researchers published the results of the new study in Nature.

Overall, the study did not necessarily find that meat is bad and vegetables are good. The study explained, “Although we find that plant-based foods generally perform better, there are considerable variations within both plant-based and animal-based foods that should be acknowledged before such generalized inferences are warranted.”

Researchers looked at the health benefits of food as well as the impact eating those foods has on the environment. For example, consuming produce and nuts is good for the environment, but consuming beef, pork and cheesy food negatively impacts the environment due to greenhouse gases. However, not all meat is bad for the environment. Chicken had a neutral impact, and so did dairy and food containing eggs.

Let’s circle back to the idea that eating certain foods can add minutes to your life, and other foods can subtract minutes from your life. Take hot dogs, for example. Eating just one hot dog can subtract 36 minutes from your life. It would be much better to eat nuts which could add 26 minutes to your life.

The study recommends that we start by substituting 10% of the unhealthy part of our diet with healthier foods. The recommendation is to swap half a serving of beef and about 20g of processed meat each day for foods like nuts, vegetables and fruit.