When you overindulge your unhealthy cravings on a regular basis, you may be taking hours, or even days, off your life. This finding comes from a study that was published in the British Medical Journal BMJ (2012).

Researcher David Spiegelhalter, a statistician with the Centre for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge, found that for every day that you eat red meat, drink several alcoholic drinks, or smoke, you lose about 30 minutes off of your life expectancy. Smoking cigarettes, however, takes a bigger toll and costs you about five hours. "After carefully looking at the statistics, the conclusion is just what sensible people have been saying for years: Eating a good balanced diet, exercising regularly, drinking in moderation, and not smoking are vital for health and longevity," Spiegelhalter says.

Finding the Right Balance

While these recommendations do indeed echo what public health advocates have been promoting in recent years, you may wonder how to put them into practice and still enjoy your indulges every so often without going overboard and putting yourself at risk for any negative consequences.

Stella Metsovas, BS, a clinical nutritionist and media health expert based in California, offers the following tips to help you eat well and still enjoy your favorite foods and drinks on occasion:

1. Understand the dynamic. Metsovas points out that eating because you want to unwind after a long day at work is a bad habit, since it means you're using food to try to cope with your feelings. "Most of us use food as a form of medicine to calm stress.  If you notice yourself indulging in foods during times of stress (i.e., a long work day) there could be a correlation and if so this would be considered a big no-no," she says. On the other hand, indulging your cravings during a social situation is okay, Metsovas points out, since using food to celebrate with friends has been linked to longevity in the Mediterranean culture according to several studies.

2. Dissect your cravings. It's also important to look more closely at your cravings and see if any patterns exist because your body might be trying to tell you something. "Having a craving every once in a while is fine, while consistently having thoughts of these foods may be your body's way of telling your something," Metsovas says. For example, it could mean your diet is missing a vitamin or nutrient or that you're not eating a healthy balance of foods.

3. Think before you splurge. Before you splurge, consider the impact certain splurges have on your body. High-calorie foods often have "two faces" according to Metsovas. "For example, a bag of pistachios has tons of fat calories, but there are also many beneficial nutrients too (fiber, vitamins and minerals), whereas french fries and ranch dressing dip offer nothing in terms of nutrition and are packed with unhealthy calorie sources," she explains. Healthier splurge choices include whole foods (such as nuts and cheeses, fruits and veggies) not heavily processed items.

4. Notice how your splurges make your body feel. Eating unhealthy foods may cause you to feel lousy immediately afterward. For instance, after eating donuts or ice cream, you may become lethargic, bloated or suffer from heartburn. This can be a sign that you should avoid these foods and look for more nutritious options.

5. Adopt a healthy eating plan. "Get in tune with a healthy balance by creating a lifestyle program that fits your needs and stay far, far away from fad dieting," she says.  There is however one diet she encourages her clients to follow: the Mediterranean diet—a heart-healthy eating plan that incorporates fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, and limits the intake of unhealthy fats. "The Mediterranean diet has been around forever and there's a reason--it's both a diet and a lifestyle."  When you follow the diet's healthful guidelines, you can improve your health and possibly add to your life span.

Stella Metsovas, BS, reviewed this article.


David Spiegelhalter. "Beware-over-indulging can take hours off your life." BMJ Journal online. Web. 17 December 2012. http://www.bmj.com/press-releases/2012/12/17/beware-over-indulging-can-take-hours-your-life

David Spiegelhalter, University of Cambridge.  Email interview 15 January 2014. http://www.csap.cam.ac.uk/network/david-spiegelhalter/

Serra-Majem L., et al. "Nutritional and cultural aspects of the Mediterranean diet." International Journal of Vitamin and Nutrition Research. June 2012.  82(3):157-62. doi: 10.1024/0300-9831/a000106. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23258395

Stella Metsovas, BS, clinical nutritionist. Email interview 15 January 2014. http://stellametsovas.com