Even small dietary changes can significantly prolong life & help the environment

November 9, 2021

Summary: Most radical diet forms are difficult to practice. Moreover, they do not state what measurable results one can expect in a specific time frame. This new study analyzed the global burden of disease data set and risk factors and other studies regarding proper nutrition. The study found that consuming foods like hot dogs or other processed foods may cut down 30 minutes or more from a person’s life. On the contrary, a portion of fruits or nuts may add a similar amount of time to a healthy life. Additionally, the study also analyzed the environmental impact of the food, as not all healthy foods are good for it.

Keywords: dietary recommendations, food item affects the environment, foods that increase the lifespan

Just eating a hot dog may cut down more than 30 minutes from your life, and having a serving of nuts may add an equal amount of healthy life. These are simple steps that, if practiced daily, can have a significant impact on the disease burden. Moreover, such minor dietary changes may also considerably help the environment.

Many studies and dietary recommendations say what to eat and whatnot. However, the problem with these guidelines is that they do not talk about what measurable impact these dietary choices would have. In addition, although these dietary recommendations speak a lot about health benefits, they forget to mention the environmental effects of certain foods.

In recent years, researchers have recognized that not all healthy food items are essentially good for the environment and vice versa. If any food item has a greater carbon footprint, it would still indirectly make our lives miserable. Thus, vegetables grown in a greenhouse may not have such a beneficial impact as though earlier.

In the study published in the journal Nature Food, experts evaluated 5800 food items. They analyzed how food items may add or reduce a certain amount of time from our lifespan. Additionally, they also analyzed the environmental impact of each of the food item1.

The study found that one does not have to make significant dietary changes to make a difference. For example, replacing just 10% of daily calorie intake from processed meats or beef with a portion of field-grown fruits, veggies, nuts, and legumes may add 48 minutes of healthy life each day.

How was the study done?

The study used some of the pre-existing and reliable databases. They studied the data from the Global Burden of Diseases (GBD). This data examines 369 health issues and their association with 87 risk factors2.

The second dataset they used is the Health Nutritional Index (HENI). HENI is the first kind of study that calculates how some foods may add or reduce healthy life in minutes. Thus, it provides a more realistic and measurable way of planning the diet3.

The study also utilized IMPACT World+ data to understand how any food item affects the environment, its carbon footprint. They studied the environmental impact of processing foods, cooking, and so on. They developed a scoring system by analyzing the effects of any food on 18 environmental indicators. Finally, they classified each food into green, yellow, and red category4.

They found that foods like fruits, nuts, field-grown vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and many seafood items fall into the green zone. On the contrary, industrial beef, processed meats, pork, lamb fall into the red zone.

Researchers also realized that not all healthy foods are good for the environment. Thus, greenhouse-grown vegetables may be healthy to eat, but they harm the environment.

By combining their understanding based on GBD, HENI, and IMPACT World+, researchers found that even small dietary changes may considerably prolong life and help prevent environmental changes:

• People should decrease consumption of foods with negative environmental impacts like greenhouse-grown veggies, industrially produced beef, pork, processed meat, and shrimp.

• Greater consumption of field-grown fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, and certain seafood items may be good for health and the environment.

This study found that it is not essential to make dramatic changes to diet. Instead, just a minor adjustment would be enough to stay healthy and protect the environment. Moreover, it is the first study to show how simple measures can make a measurable difference.

The authors failed to account for:

• ruminant agriculture and net carbon sequestration with improvement of soil architecture

• water and energy utilization, especially for nut production

• downstream risks of monocropping in soil depletion and environmental toxicity of herbicides and pesticides

• bioavailability of animal based products as compared to plant based products


1. Stylianou KS, Fulgoni VL, Jolliet O. Small targeted dietary changes can yield substantial gains for human health and the environment. Nat Food. 2021;2(8):616-627. doi:10.1038/s43016-021-00343-4

2. GBD Compare. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Published April 22, 2014. Accessed October 30, 2021. http://www.healthdata.org/data-visualization/gbd-compare

3. Understanding the Healthy Eating Index and why it matters. UT Nutrition Institute. Accessed October 30, 2021. https://utnutritioninstitute.org/whats-fresh/healthy-eating-index

4. Bulle C, Margni M, Patouillard L, et al. IMPACT World+: a globally regionalized life cycle impact assessment method. Int J Life Cycle Assess. 2019;24(9):1653-1674. doi:10.1007/s11367-019-01583-0

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