Happy Healthy Halloween!
Ever-desperate retailers are getting in on the seasonal bandwagon by promoting Halloween festivities, which could mean spending your hard-earned money on potentially unhealthy and expensive cakes, snacks and sweets.
Venture tentatively into the local supermarket on a dark autumnal night and you could be faced by your ultimate fear – scarily unhealthy food at exorbitant prices! However, savvy shoppers can enjoy a happy Halloween.
We all want a party and Halloween is a great excuse – but how can we make sure it’s healthy and economical?
The expert nutritionist’s guidance on the big 6
Almost all foods come with a health breakdown by nutrition – these are called macro nutrients – the big 4 are carbohydrates (carbs), protein, fat and salt, but due to recent research two important sub-divisions of carbs and fat are also provided, these are sugar and saturated fat.
So these comprise the big 6 macro-nutrients health experts argue you should be very concerned with on your shopping expedition. So much so that the NHS even provides a web page detailing the reference intake (RI) values. Essentially, these guide you to the right amount you should eat of each based upon the daily intake of a female consuming 2000 calories.
All food can be both health and unhealthy – it depends on the amount you eat!
Most people ask me – is this health or is that healthy? But all foods are healthy and unhealthy. Most consumers pay little attention to the nutritional information, and even if they do read it – the information – even the traffic light warnings, do not mean much because you cannot see how it easily relates to health.
A single test for a perfect food
In what follows I will use a single value to determine the healthiness of a food based upon the distance 2000 calories of the food is from the six RI values.
The RI values help determine a ‘Goldilocks zone’ in terms of nutrition. Too little of these can cause severe problems, whilst too much can cause severe health problems, but getting it just right – a balance of all 6 nutrients – keeps you healthy (subject to a lot of factors including getting all the other nutrients such as calcium, iron, etc – but that is another story!).
There are a couple of problems using this distance measure – first I have to assume that each nutrient has equal value to health, and the distance (above or below the RI) also has an equal value to health. So for example having no salt is the same as having double the RI value. This method also assumes have more than double the RI value is much worse than not having any salt for instance.
It will help to give a few examples (e.g., if I was to only eat lard), then clearly this fat-based food would not supply much nutrient apart from fat and saturated fat. Indeed that is all you get, trace salt and no carbs or protein. Doing the calculations gives the health index a score of nearly 50 (almost the same value as granulated sugar). We know a perfect score would be zero but looking at a real food (Complan, a meal substitute), this will give me a very good score of 9.
Indeed one popular baby food scores 11. So a value between zero to 15 seems sensible to aim for. But anything close to 50 is not healthy at all. By healthy we mean will it deliver the right amount and balance of macro-nutrients if we eat 2000 calories of it.
We should not forget the economics of eating – it turns out that you can buy 2000 calories of lard or sugar for exactly the same price – about 35p, whilst for the same number of calories Complan costs about £4.50 and the baby food over £11!
The question is can we buy cheap healthy food for our Halloween party?
Food comparisons are shocking!
Looking at the table below I have picked out a few basic food-stuffs and well-known processed foods which might be used regularly and as snacks/treats for Halloween. They are ranked by the 2000kcal healthiness index and also I’ve listed the cost of eating 2000kcals.
Now this table is both shocking, revelatory and probably controversial because many foodstuffs such as kale (32) and avocado (27), which we take as given as healthy products, do very badly. This may be because they do not contain macro-nutrients such as salt or sugar or they may have too much carbs. Though great in a mixed diet, you could not really live on them without some health problem, for example a diet purely of avocados would yield too much fat.
Should we feed our kids savoury snacks versus sweets or healthier fruit? Well the index comes down firmly on savoury snacks. This is likely because sweets and fruits are one-hit-wonders, just sugar (which is a carb), so carb-based foods like crisps which contain little or no sugar seem healthier. Fruits and smoothies typically contain just sugar as their main macro-nutrient, so they perform very badly even though they may have useful vitamins.
Weirdly, apples (44) are worse than chocolate (30) because chocolate – although sugary – also provides you with protein. The balance of macro-nutrients really matters here – that is why semi-skimmed milk (25) is better than whole milk (30), which is in turn better than skimmed milk(37). You would be better off drinking Alpro Soya (22). Although the Alpro would cost £7.18 to live on, while the milk £1.93!
Surely salads are healthy? To some extent one mixed salad (23) is better than milk, but at a cost of £85.71 would not be worth paying, as for £1.26 you could just eat bread and get a health score of 12!
Should I eat vegan?
For your Halloween meal would beans or pizza or burgers be any good? One of the best foods is actually a vegan pizza (10), a very good score, although 2000 kcals could set you back just over £6. Falafels (11) might be better costing just £5.60 as well as just good bread (12) costing £1.26. The only meat-based food which appears in the healthy part of the spectrum is a simple bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich(12), but 2000 kcals would set you back over £12.
So yes, vegan foods do seem cheap and healthy, though many meat dishes have health indices below 20: Annabel Karmel Beef Cottage Pie (15), Weight Watchers Chicken Tikka Masala ((16), Birds eye chicken nuggets (17), Beans with Pork sausages (19).
But some vegan foods are dramatically bad. Fruit is the one-hit-wonder with far too much sugar, typically scoring 40 or higher. Even berry fruits such as blueberries score 29 with a cost of £35. Mixed veg do slightly better at 17 on the index for £3.77, but chickpeas cost £3.77, though with a high index at 23. In this latter case you would be better off with a Pork Farms medium pork pie (22) costing £3.16.
The index is simply what it is – a distance valuation of the macro-nutrition values for 200 kcals of each food from the reference intake provided by health experts.
You should never just eat one food in a whole day, Pandas and Cows do it (more or less) but we are omnivorous in fact we are Granivores, as our diet would normally contain high values of seed and grains – this is likely why the index tends to favour savoury snacks over sweet snacks.
Indeed if we did eat like pandas – bamboo shoots would be a score of 41 and cost us £141 to live on a day. Unhealthy and far too expensive. So eat simply, vary your diet and become a Halloween Vegan! That should scare a few people!