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New index calculates the minute-cost or benefit to healthy life of 6,000 foods

A  new epidemiology-based Health Nutritional Index (HENI), developed at the University of Michigan and published in published in Nature Food, calculates the net beneficial or detrimental health burden in minutes of healthy life associated with a serving of almost 6,000 foods consumed.

Every hotdog you eat shortens your life by 36 minutes. However, you could also add minutes to your healthy life expectancy by eating better foods. A portion of nuts, for example, adds almost 26 minutes, while a peanut butter and jam sandwich gives a person more than half an hour extra life.

The foods were ranked according to their nutritional disease burden to humans and their impact on the environment and found that substituting 10% of daily caloric intake from beef and processed meats for a mix of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and select seafood, could reduce your dietary carbon footprint by one-third and allow people to gain 48 minutes of healthy minutes per day.

Their epidemiology-based Health Nutritional Index (HENI) focused on finding a way to calculate the direct influence of various meals, snacks and drinks, which the investigators developed in collaboration with nutritionist Victor Fulgoni III from Nutrition Impact LLC. HENI calculates the net beneficial or detrimental health burden in minutes of healthy life associated with a serving of food consumed.

The index is an adaptation of the Global Burden of Disease in which disease mortality and morbidity are associated with a single food choice of an individual.

For HENI, researchers used 15 dietary risk factors and disease burden estimates from the GBD and combined them with the nutrition profiles of foods consumed in the United States, based on the What We Eat in America database of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Foods with positive scores add healthy minutes of life, while foods with negative scores are associated with health outcomes that can be detrimental for human health.

It takes into account all aspects of a productʼs life cycle, including how it is produced, harvested, processed, consumed and disposed of, as well as how calorific and nutritionally beneficial or detrimental a food was: simply put, it works by calculating the health burden of one gram of any food, and then scaling this up to a standard serving size.

“For example, we found that, on average, 0.45 minutes are lost per gram of any processed meat that a person eats in the US,” the study authors wrote.

“The 61 grams of processed meat in a hotdog results in 27 minutes of healthy life lost, due to this amount of processed meat alone. Then, when considering the other risk factors, like the sodium and trans fatty acids inside the hotdog – counterbalanced by the benefit of its polyunsaturated fat and fibres – we arrived at the final value of 36 minutes of healthy life lost per hotdog.”

But each item of food contributes to a unique equation and a person does not need to make wholesale dietary changes to reap the rewards, researchers said.

If a meat-eater were to replace 10% of their daily calories – 250 for men and 200 for women – with nuts, fruits and vegetables instead of processed meat or beef, they would gain 48 minutes of healthy life every day they stick to this change.

This simple adjustment, the researchers said, also has clear environmental benefits and slashes a personʼs daily dietary carbon footprint by a third.

"Generally, dietary recommendations lack specific and actionable direction to motivate people to change their behaviour, and rarely do dietary recommendations address environmental impacts," said Katerina Stylianou, who did the research as a doctoral candidate and postdoctoral fellow in the the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at University of Michigan's School of Public Health. She currently works as the director of Public Health Information and Data Strategy at the Detroit Health Department.

Foods with positive scores will add healthy minutes of life, while foods with negative scores are associated with health outcomes that can be detrimental for human health.

They also classified foods into three colour zones: green, yellow and red, based on their combined nutritional and environmental performances, much like a traffic light. The green zone represents foods that are recommended to increase in one's diet and contains foods that are both nutritionally beneficial and have low environmental impacts. Foods in this zone are predominantly nuts, fruits, field-grown vegetables, legumes, whole grains and some seafood.

The red zone includes foods that have either considerable nutritional or environmental impacts and should be reduced or avoided in one's diet. Nutritional impacts were primarily driven by processed meats, and climate and most other environmental impacts driven by beef and pork, lamb and processed meats. Salmon scored well for nutritional impact, for instance, achieving a green label and adding 16 minutes to a personʼs healthy life. However, it got a red for environmental impact, and therefore a red overall, with people encouraged to decrease their consumption of the oily fish.

Chilli con carne with beans is another example of a food being bad for the environment, but good for health. Cola, on the other hand, got a red for nutrition – thieving 12.5 minutes of life per drink – but a green for environmental impact, but this still led to a recommendation to decrease how much a person consumes.

Foods are only recommended if they scored a green for both nutrition and environment. All of the green dishes are meat-free, with plenty of fish, bean and nut-based items.

“Previous studies have often reduced their findings to a plant versus animal-based foods discussion,” said Stylianou. “Although we find that plant-based foods generally perform better, there are considerable variations within both plant-based and animal-based foods.”

The researchers acknowledge that the range of all indicators varies substantially and also point out that nutritionally beneficial foods might not always generate the lowest environmental impacts and vice versa.

Based on their findings, they suggested decreasing foods with the most negative health and environmental impacts, including high processed meat, beef, shrimp, followed by pork, lamb and greenhouse-grown vegetables, and
 increasing the most nutritionally beneficial foods, including field-grown fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and low-environmental impact seafood.

"The urgency of dietary changes to improve human health and the environment is clear," said Professor Olivier Jolliet, senior author of the paper. "Our findings demonstrate that small targeted substitutions offer a feasible and powerful strategy to achieve significant health and environmental benefits without requiring dramatic dietary shifts."

The project was carried out within the frame of an unrestricted grant from the National Dairy Council and of the University of Michigan Dow Sustainability Fellowship. The researchers are also working with partners in Switzerland, Brazil and Singapore to develop similar evaluation systems there. Eventually, they would like to expand it to countries all around the world.

Small targeted dietary changes can yield substantial gains for human and environmental health
Katerina S. Stylianou, Victor L. Fulgoni III & Olivier Jolliet

Published in NatureFood 18 August 2021


To identify environmentally sustainable foods that promote health, we combined nutritional health-based and 18 environmental indicators to evaluate, classify and prioritize individual foods. Specifically for nutrition, we developed the Health Nutritional Index to quantify marginal health effects in minutes of healthy life gained or lost of 5,853 foods in the US diet, ranging from 74 min lost to 80 min gained per serving.

Environmental impacts showed large variations and were found to correlate with global warming, except those related to water use.

Our analysis also indicated that substituting only 10% of daily caloric intake from beef and processed meat for fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and selected seafood could offer substantial health improvements of 48 min gained per person per day and a 33% reduction in dietary carbon footprint.


Nature article – Small targeted dietary changes can yield substantial gains for human and environmental health (Restricted access)


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