If your diet is anchored by too much processed meat, too few vegetables and too much sugar, it’s likely going to cost you, in dollars, life expectancy and quality of life.

Dr. Timothy S. Harlan

But slight changes in how and what you eat can save you money, prolong your life and improve the quality of your life, said Dr. Timothy S. Harlan, director of the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University.

More than 140,000 people die annually in the U.S. from strokes, according to federal health organizations. More than 1.2 million annually die from cancer or heart attacks.

By 2028, the country is projected to spend $818 billion annually on heart attack-related illnesses alone, Harlan said. Even when those costs are borne by private or public insurance companies, the money ultimately comes out of the pocket of consumers, in the form of deductibles, taxes or insurance premiums.

The average family of four already spends $4,300 annually on the heart attack-related health problems, Harlan said.

The good news, he said, is that many of those deaths can be delayed and much of the cost can be avoided with better diets.

“Low-fat diets are a failure,” Harlan said.

Like many other diets, low-fat diets may help people lose a few pounds — but as soon as people stop dieting, they gain back the weight, he said.

However, studies have shown that simple — but permanent — changes such as eating from smaller plates or bowls and switching to a Mediterranean diet — more vegetables, legumes and fish, less processed meat, alcohol and sugar — reduce people’s risk of deadly diseases and improve their quality of life.

“We can really have a significant impact on longevity,” Harlan said.

Fine as North Dakota wine

Studies have shown that anything from the size of the ice cream scooper to the label on wine bottles affects how much people consume, he said.

In an experiment in which customers received the same wine, but in bottles with a different label, those with who drank the “California wine” consumed 12 percent more food than those who had the “North Dakota wine.”

“Taste expectations can dramatically bias sensory evaluations,” the study’s authors wrote. “Positive taste expectations of a wine could lead to positive taste expectations of companion foods, which would lead to increased consumption for both.”

In another experiment, people who ate ice cream out of a 34-ounce bowl ate 31 percent more than people who ate out of a 17-ounce bowl. Combining a larger bowl with a larger scooper prompted people to eat 57 percent more.

Quantity vs. quality

The internist and author also said that while many people obsessed over weight, they should focus less on the quantity of calories they consume, and more on the quality.

Unsaturated fats, for example, are much better than saturated ones, he said. And while red meat is not necessarily bad for you, processed meats — bologna, hot dogs — are, as they increase your risk for cancer.

For decades, studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet, high in vegetables, legumes, whole grains and low in saturated fats, meats and alcohol, significantly reduces people’s risks for ailments including cancer and heart disease, Harlan said.

Men should drink no more than two drinks per day — and preferably with food — while women should consume no more than one drink per day. Five ounces of wine constitute one drink. As do 12 ounces of beer. And no, Harlan said, you can’t save your seven or 14 drinks per week for Sunday night football.

Even slight changes toward a Mediterranean style diet — reducing processed meat consumption, eating one fruit per day, adding a snack of a few almonds — can produce significant benefits, he said.

At its Goldring Center, Tulane trains doctors and community members to understand the connection between food and health and even provides cooking classes to show the ease with which the Mediterranean diet can be adopted and how tasty the dishes are. The university has licensed the programming to 32 medical schools across the country, including the University of Louisville.

The center also offers recipes for all types of meals, including dishes such as roasted tomato and spinach frittata, curried lentils and pulled pork nachos.