Can you enjoy junk food without sabotaging your health?

There’s no doubt that too much junk food can screw your life. But ‘healthy’ foods have issues too. With this latest roundup of research, we reveal the ‘healthy staples’ that get a black mark, and how the humble sandwich could be healthier than you think. Read on and find out how to make smart food choices backed by science.

Junk food is shaving years off your life – but a peanut butter jelly sandwich could save you

Thanks to a new study from the University of Michigan we now know every hot dog you eat can shorten your life by 36 minutes. But you don’t need a dramatic shift in diet to undo the damage. In fact, peanut butter jelly sandwiches could fix it. Researchers found that you can almost mitigate the life-shortening effects of a hot dog with a portion of nuts (one portion adds 26 minutes to your life). And they specifically recommend peanut butter and jelly sandwiches saying the high nut content outweighs the downsides of the peanut butter. If you eat meat, another life-lengthening tactic is to replace 10 percent of your calorie intake with nuts, fruits or vegetables instead of meat. Every day you do this can add 48 minutes of healthy life, which is classified as a good quality disease-free life. The researchers made these calculations using a Health Nutritional Index. They took into account risk factors such as sodium and trans fatty acids along with the benefits of polyunsaturated fat and fibers and established the health burden per gram of 5800 different foods.

The ‘healthy’ foods you should cut back on

As part of the hot dog study mentioned above, researchers also used the Health Nutritional Index to unearth the environmental impact of 5800 foods. They evaluated how foods are produced, harvested, processed, consumed and disposed of, as well as how nutritionally beneficial or detrimental they are. Again they found replacing 10 percent of your calorie intake with nuts, fruits or vegetables instead of meat was a smart move – it can cut your daily dietary carbon footprint by a third. They also identified that salmon is not the wonder food it is often made out to be. While it can add 16 minutes to your healthy life, it got the red light for environmental impact and a recommendation from experts that you reduce intake. Bean-based chili con carne was also in the same boat. Interestingly, while it’s no surprise that Cola is bad for your health (each drink can cut 12.5 minutes from your life), it was given the green light for environmental impact.

What is too much sugar actually doing to your body?

The average American eats about 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day – that’s more than three times the recommended daily amount for women and twice the recommended daily amount for men! It’s well known that such overconsumption can result in high blood pressure, diabetes, fatty liver disease and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. But why? Thanks to a new study in Cell Reports we can now see what surplus sugar does at a cellular level. The scientists found that too much sugar results in too much glucose in cells, this affects lipid composition throughout the body and in turn the mitochondria (energy generators within each cell) – which become less efficient and reduce their output. Study author Ning Wu, Ph.D. explains that while we may not notice the sugar-induced difference in mitochondrial performance, our bodies do. "If the lipid balance is thrown off for long enough, we may begin to feel subtle changes, such as tiring more quickly.” And when the mitochondria are underperforming in this way it sets the stage for metabolic diseases to kick in.

Which foods will pay off decades down the track?

While eating healthy plant-based foods is a good move for us all, it’s particularly good for young adults. A new study found those who ate a healthy plant-centered diet as a young adult tended to have a lower likelihood of heart disease years later.

Working with 4,946 women (who were aged 18 – 30 back when the study commenced in 1985), researchers scored the quality of each woman’s diet using a Priori Diet Quality Score to record intake of beneficial foods, neutral foods and adverse foods. Over 32 years of follow-up, 289 of the participants developed cardiovascular disease. Those who ate the most nutritionally rich plant foods (and were in the top 20 percent on long-term diet quality score) were 52 percent less likely than others to suffer cardiovascular disease. Those who ramped up the quality of their diet and ate more beneficial plant foods between the ages of 25 and 50 were 61 percent less likely to develop subsequent cardiovascular disease. The researchers noted that a nutritionally rich, plant-centered diet does not necessarily have to be vegetarian. It simply involves foods that are as close to natural as possible, not highly processed, and any animal products are items like non-fried poultry, non-fried fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.