Hot dogs? Really?
When Helen Diekman, who died recently at the age of 100, was asked for the secret of her long life she said it might be down to her habit of having hot dog, fries and a Coke two or three times a week.
These regular hot dog lunches at a Chicago restaurant, Portillo’s, only started when Helen was 98 so there is every chance she was joking when she claimed them as her longevity secret. And she did also cite having lots of friends, going to bed early and attending church as other ‘secrets’.
But let’s take her statement at face value. Is it possible that hot dogs might actually have helped her live to 100?
Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. Not in themselves. Hot dogs are made of processed meat which is associated with a risk of a shorter life, not a longer one.
One study of nearly 450,000 people suggested that cutting down on processed meat like hot dogs would reduce the risk of early death by three per cent. Those who ate the most processed meat had a 44 per cent risk of early death.
Though the study couldn’t demonstrate that it was the meat which caused an early death it did suggest a few reasons why that might be the case. Not only is processed meat high in cholesterol and saturated fat, it is also treated with nitrates which cause the formation of carcinogens.
No surprises, then, that this year the World Health Organisation considered over 400 studies and announced its verdict that 50g of processed meat every day increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. That’s about half a hot dog.
(Incidentally, if you want another reason to avoid hot dogs, you could watch this short film on how they’re made. At the very least it’ll make you want to go heavy on the mustard.)
But let’s put this in context. Eating processed meat creates a relatively small additional risk – ‘a bacon sandwich is not as bad as smoking’, as the BBC advises helpfully- and Helen ate hot dogs at most three times a week for just a couple of years.
Plus these regular trips to Portillo’s in her 98th and 99th years sound like fun. Helen was always attended by a carer or relative and she got to know the staff well. After her back injury, she said the goal of her rehab was for her to be able to walk back into Portillo’s by herself. She didn’t quite make that – she had to use a wheelchair – but for her 100th birthday in November, the restaurant hosted a huge party for her relatives and friends, including many of the staff.
And motivation is as vital in later life as at any time. So it’s not too hard to believe that hot dogs – or perhaps more accurately the trip out to eat them – might just have been a small factor in Helen making it through to that 100th birthday.