'This Food Will Kill You, That Food Will Save You'

Yoni Freedhoff, MD


August 31, 2021

Not sure if you've heard the news, but eating a single hot dog will apparently cost you 36 minutes of healthy life. My first thought when hearing this was of course the same as everyone else's: Poor Joey Chestnut, multiyear winner of Nathan's annual hot dog–eating contest.

He won this year's contest with 76 hot dogs, which puts his total number of competition-consumed hot dogs at 1089 — which cost him, it would seem, 27.2 days of healthy life. Unless, of course, every hot dog he inhaled came with a bun hosting two portions of sesame seeds, which in turn would buy him 50 extra minutes of life (25 minutes per portion, you see) and would consequently have extended his life by 10.6 days.

Clearly, the obvious solution here is to ensure that all hot dog buns have two portions of sesame seeds on them moving forward; that way, hot dogs can transition from being poisonous killers to anti-aging medicine.

The other solution, albeit less exciting, perhaps, is for researchers to stop studying single foods' impacts on health, and/or for journals to stop publishing them, and/or for the media to stop promoting them — because they are all as ridiculously useless as the example above highlighting findings from a newly published study in Nature Food, entitled "Small targeted dietary changes can yield substantial gains for human health and the environment."

While no doubt we would all love for diet and health to be so well understood that we could choose specific single foods (knowing that they would prolong our lives) while avoiding single foods that would shorten it, there's this unfortunate truth that the degree of confounding among food alone is staggering. People eat thousands of different foods in thousands of different dietary combinations. Moreover, most (all?) research conducted on dietary impacts of single foods on health don't actually track consumption of those specific foods over time, let alone their interactions with all other foods consumed, but rather at moments in time.

In the case of the "hot dogs will kill you unless there are sesame seeds on your bun" article, for example, the researchers utilized one solitary dietary recall session upon which to base their ridiculously specific, ridiculous conclusions.

People's diets also change over time for various reasons, and of course people themselves are very different. You might imagine that people whose diets are rich in chicken wings, sugared soda, and hot dogs will have markedly different lifestyles and demographics than those whose diets are rich in walnuts, sashimi, and avocados.

So why do we keep seeing studies like this being published? Is it because they’re basically clickbait catnip for journals and newspapers, and in our publish-or-perish attention-seeking world, that means they not only get a pass but they get a press release? Is it because peer review is broken and everyone knows it? Is it because as a society, we're frogs who have been steeping for decades in the ever-heated pot of nutritional nonsense, and consequently don't think to question it?

I don't know the answer to any of those questions, but one thing I do know: Studies on single foods' impact on life length are pointless, impossible, and idiotic, and people who share them noncritically should be forever shunned — or at the very least, forever ignored.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute, a nonsurgical weight management center. He is one of Canada's most outspoken obesity experts and the author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work.

Follow Yoni Freedhoff on Twitter:  @YoniFreedhoff

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