We all want good health. So when a CNN headline states, “Eating a hot dog could take 36 minutes off your life, study says” it can be quite triggering.
How can one hotdog cause the loss of 36 minutes of life?
“That’s not fair” you might think, “hot dogs represent summertime, BBQs, and baseball games - the 4th of July. It's practically America's national dish.” (It’s actually the hamburger, but close enough).
I have a confession to make. While I know that hot dogs are really unhealthy, I too on occasion will indulge in one. For me, it’s the summertime association of working as a teen at a hot dog stand where I would spend summers at a lake. So I equate hotdogs with summer fun, swimming and sunshine. Even my vegetarian pre-teen, who has never been fond of meat since infancy - will on occasion enjoy a hot dog.
As a Lifestyle Medicine doctor, and particularly from a cancer standpoint - is that hotdog really worth it?
The study published in this month’s Nature Food  created a food index to evaluate the impact of healthy life gained or lost in minutes based on various foods. It also assessed the environmental impact of raising or growing certain foods in relation to global warming.
While foods like hotdogs and sugar-sweetened beverages have an overall negative impact on health, other foods such as fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 rich seafoods have a positive impact. In fact eating a handful of nuts according to this study extends life by as much as 26 minutes
The point is not to say that for every hotdog you eat, you can undo the effects by eating a lot of nuts. But it does show that what you eat has consequences. Both upon your individual health and on the environment. The World Health Organization classifies processed meats (including ham, bacon, salami and frankfurters) as a Group 1 carcinogen, foods that are known to cause cancer. According to the American Institute for cancer research, every 50 g of processed meat (1 hotdog or 2 slices of ham) eaten daily raises the risk of colorectal cancer by 16%. They recommend eating little if any processed meat, and limiting red meat consumption to less than 500 g per week.
I’m not saying this to vilify the hotdog. The sausage has a noble history dating back to ancient Mesopotamia of around 3100 BC. It was thanks to the introduction of spices that allowed meat to be dried and preserved for when food was scarce, and no doubt contributed to the improved nutrition of its people and the flourishing of its society.
In our time, however, when we have plenty of other food options, why not choose the healthier option for our bodies and the environment – even if it’s just most of the time? The study shows that even substituting just 10% of your daily caloric intake from beef and processed meats in exchange for fruits, nuts, legumes and some seafood could offer health improvements of 48 min of life gained PER DAY, and a 33% reduction in dietary carbon footprint.
Food is complex. It’s associated with emotions, with memories, with comfort, with celebrations, with family, with love. Completely banishing a certain type of food may work for some individuals, but for others this brings more angst, dissonance, and frankly desire.
In our privileged world, we have the luxury of choice. By eating healthily we can improve our health, potentially gain a healthier and longer lifespan, and at the same time decrease our carbon footprint. Without having to give up these indulgences permanently, isn’t it worth making an effort to choose the smarter choice the majority of the time?
Eye-catching headlines aside, there’s no harm in educating ourselves and being aware. Knowing the data and choosing healthier foods improves our risk against cancer, cardiovascular, and other diseases. Transforming yourself from someone who eats without realizing the impact on your health and environment to a healthier you, with lowered cancer risk while also helping to heal the world – is definitely worth it. To me, this seems like a fair trade off to decreasing my hotdog consumption, perhaps limiting it to just once, maybe twice a year on those hot summers when I want that special treat.
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