Healthy eating: not always as healthy as you might think.

I have a confession to make.

When it comes to healthy eating I’m absolutely useless. Spending extended periods of time in the kitchen is my idea of hell, especially when I could be doing better things (like blogging about how I don’t like spending time in my kitchen). So, when meal time comes around, I usually either rely on my long suffering husband’s culinary skills or trust in the marketing I see on supermarket shelves, erring towards products labeled as as ‘Fat Free’, ‘Healthy Living’ or ‘Nutritious’. This has always seemed like a pretty solid game plan and I’m sure I’m not the only one who uses this method to try and move towards a healthier, more balanced diet.

However, as part of my interest in health apps, I downloaded the NHS’s Change4Life app which allows you to play food detective, scanning different products and giving a simple overview of how much sugar, saturated fat and salt they contain and the results were pretty eye opening.

The app looks friendly enough with it’s vibrant yellow background and quirky cartoon interface but after a few well meaning scans I started to feel that this app was probably not my friend.

My first scan was something I knew would flag up as being unhealthy but I wanted to see just how bad it actually was. So I scanned a box of my favourite chocolate cereal and waited for the result. What I found was pretty shocking. It seems that, for each bowl of tasty chocolate goodness, I’m actually eating the equivalent of 3 cubes of sugar and half a sachet of salt. Since the recommended daily sugar intake for an adult woman is 25 grams (just over 6 sugar cubes), this means that one bowl of my favourite cereal is about 44% of my recommended sugar fix for the whole day – talk about starting the day off on the wrong foot! I must admit I felt that I may have been happier not knowing this information but I certainly wouldn’t be healthier.

After this chocolatey revelation, I thought I’d use the app to perform a broad sweep of a range of products in my local supermarket, focusing on those marketed as being healthy.

One of the most striking things I found as I scanned around the shelves was that a fair number of products which I always assumed were relatively healthy, usually because that was how they were marketed, just weren’t.

I’m not going to name names (download the app and try for yourself) but here are a few of the shockers that I uncovered:

Sticking with my theme of breakfast revelations, I scanned a pack of popular breakfast biscuits which are marketed as ‘A perfect source of nutritious sustained energy’. I found that each portion contained almost a whole cube of sugar (1 sixth of your daily allowance in one, supposedly healthy, biscuit), 0.2 grams of saturated fat, and 0.2 sachets of salt. The app’s handy traffic light system rated sugar in this product as being high (red) while saturated fat and salt were both medium (orange). So perhaps this is not the best breakfast option?

Next I decided to move away from breakfast and try out a lunch option. The lunch pot I scanned was marketed as a ‘light lunch’, which I, and I’m sure many others, would assume should be a healthy option. This product was a winner when it came to sugar and saturated fat, being low (green) for both but then I looked at the salt. Registering as medium for salt content, one portion contained the equivalent of 3.6 sachets, that’s almost 2 grams or around a third of your daily recommended intake. Although salt often takes a back seat to sugar and saturated fat when we talk about healthy eating, it’s important to know that too much salt in our diets can increase our risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. It’s recommended that we don’t eat more than 6 grams of salt per day, that’s less than one teaspoon!

From here I thought I’d move on to look at a few larger ready meals, focusing on supermarket own-brand ‘healthy living’ meals. I was hopeful. The first meal I scanned was low in sugar but contained 5.1 grams of saturated fat and 0.6 grams of salt per portion, this registered as being medium or orange for both. My next two scans sadly seemed to followed the same trend.

So, although there were exceptions, it seemed that many of the meals and snacks I scanned which were marketed as healthy or balanced were actually much less healthy than I would have first thought. I also noticed a trend that products which were marketed as being ‘low fat’ were often particularly high in sugar. I guess this is the trade off the manufacturers make but perhaps it should state on the packaging ‘low in fat but packed with sugar to compensate’.

Finally, and one of the biggest revelations for me, was when I tried comparing a named-brand wheat biscuit breakfast cereal with the supermarket’s own-brand alternative. The named brand cereal was one of my first ‘all green’ scans with low levels of sugar, saturated fat and salt – pretty much what I would have expected from a simple wheat cereal. However, when I scanned the supermarket’s own product I was suddenly confronted by a unnerving orange traffic light for salt.The app showed that the own-brand cereal contained 0.3 grams of salt per serving, compared to 0.1 for the named brand. I think this is still at the lower-end of medium but I was shocked that this difference existed at all between two brands of what is essentially the same product. I guess that this proves, even if we think we know a product, it’s important to be sure exactly how different brands alter their ingredients.

For me, playing with this app has been amazingly interesting. Although the information the app gives you is no different from what you could read yourself on an ingredients list, the app interface gives you a quick and easy way to gauge, in a comparative way, how healthy each product really is. It also offers tips for healthier alternatives and recipes which has given me something extra to think about during my weekly shop.

I’m not going to kid myself though, I’m no saint when it comes to food and I don’t think I ever will be but I know how important it is to try and maintain a reasonable balance. This is why the most worrying discovery I made using this app is not the amount of sugar and fat in the foods which I know are bad for me (the things I try to eat in moderation) but it’s the figures the app shows for foods I would otherwise have assumed to be a ‘healthy alternative’. So, I really do recommend downloading the app and trying it out for yourselves, it may just be the fist step on the path to a healthier life.

Post by: Sarah Fox



Normalising cancer.

Working in the area of medical research I hear a lot about cancer. From the development of algorithms that can predict who is most at risk of developing the disease to the best ways to support patients through surgery, the big C is still top of the research agenda for many academics. Therefore, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that when I sidestepped away from neuroscience into the broader field of health research I wasn’t entirely prepared for the deluge of cancer research about to fall on my lap.

But this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, especially since it is currently suggested that one in 2 people will, at some point in their lives, develop cancer and that deaths from cancer are higher in Greater Manchester than the rest of the UK. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding these facts excessively scary and, if I’m honest, I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea that one in 2 of us will suffer from cancer at some point in our lives (flip a coin, heads you win tails you lose).

However, it’s exactly these feelings of fear and disassociation I want to explore.

With the sword of Damocles resting maliciously above our heads and knowing that our best weapon against the big C is early diagnosis, is it time for cancer to be dragged out of the shadows and for us all to have a good look?

Earlier this year I took my mum to a talk called ‘Identity and Illness’ which was billed as an exploration of the way we build our identities up around our illnesses and what role diagnosis plays in this process. For some reason I built this up in my mind as being about mental illness, a topic I’m very interested in, and was shocked when we turned up and found that it was actually an exploration of how a cancer diagnosis influences identity. It had been a long day at work, I was tired and cancer was not something I wanted to think about. However, I’m glad I avoided the temptation to stick my fingers in my ears and hum loudly because the discussion soon took a very interesting turn. The speakers began to question why as a society we bury our heads in the sand when it comes to cancer, softly repeating the mantra it won’t be me, when the upsetting truth is that it’s pretty likely to be you and that your best chance of survival is vigilance and acceptance. Why are we so reluctant to confront illness as part of our everyday lives and would that feared diagnosis be easier to stomach if information, frank discussion and disease role models were a more common part of our daily lives?

People just don’t want to talk about serious illness and it’s rarely addressed in the media. Who else was shocked last year by what seemed to be the sudden death of David Bowie shortly after releasing his poignant music video Lazarus (“look up here I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”). In fact, studies suggest that it’s not rare for people to try to hide serious illness, with a quarter of people actively hiding their diagnosis from colleagues and, if possible, even from their family and friends.

But, however far under the rug we try to sweep illness it won’t go away. No family is immune and it can affect people of any age, wealth, profession and education. So, would we be better off opening the box on cancer and other serious illnesses and trying to integrate them back into society. Should illness be the norm rather than just our dirty little secret and would this mindset improve diagnosis, survival rates and the quality of life for sufferers?

Perhaps encouraging more transparency and better dialogues would even go some way to tackling some of the damaging and pervasive myths surrounding cancer. It’s much easier to build up false narratives around something which is hard to see than around things which are common parts of our everyday lives.

I do recognise that this is a difficult topic but it’s one that needs to be addressed. Rather than fearing illness, we should be prepared to increase our awareness, using all the knowledge at our disposal to recognise the earliest symptoms and be prepared to fight as soon as it raises its ugly head. And yes, like many of you, I know that no matter how loud my logical brain shouts that illness and cancer are just a part of life and that knowledge is our best weapon, there will always be a part of me that wants to hide away and ignore it. But, cancer research is moving forward in leaps and bounds and survival rates associated with early diagnosis have never been higher. So, it’s never been more important to face this monster head on – shout it’s name from the rooftops and assert that we will beat it.

Post by: Sarah Fox