New Research Into Meal Deals: How ‘Healthy’ Are They?

Holly Philpott

We’ve all been there before: you’re on campus and it hits lunchtime. Whether it be 12pm, 1pm or even later, you can feel a sensation creeping up through your body, beginning in your stomach and rising until your head can’t see, hear or think about anything else. Your tummy is rumbling, huge shockwaves onset by one emotion only – hunger. You realise you’re caught out and don’t have any lunch on you, so you head to one of the food outlets on campus to buy the ever-loved meal deal. While we may think this is an ideal way of having our lunch throughout the week, researchers over the past decade aren’t so sure; how can we guarantee that the meal deal we choose is beneficial to our bodies? Holly Philpott discusses.

At the start of 2023, new research was released by the University of Birmingham, which concluded that the average meal deal exceeds calorie intake recommendations by 10%. Let’s examine these results further: the university examined 5 different supermarket and high street chains and discovered that 23% of meal deals offered exceeded the UK Government’s recommended calorie intake for lunch (which, as it stands according to their ‘One You’ campaign, is just under a third of our daily recommended intake). Whilst I will not be divulging calorie numbers of food items in this article due to the sensitive nature of numbers relating to food, it is certainly worth considering the extent to which some meal deal combinations can exceed what is recommended to us. Some particular foods which were pointed out by the university’s study for being higher in calories than expected were certain kinds of sandwiches and baguettes, as well as some crisp packets and chocolate bars. 

23% of meal deals offered exceeded the UK Government’s recommended calorie intake for lunch

In addition, the group Action on Salt presented their own research in March 2022 to raise awareness of the potentially dangerous level of salt in some of our meal deal choices. Salt, which is found in most foods we consume, is recommended to be kept to a minimum because of the health risks associated with it, including future heart conditions. Action on Salt found that 70% of meal deals sold on high streets are high in salt, with some even contributing up to a third of our recommended salt intakes. When we consider that Action on Salt estimates 1 in 3 people purchase meal deals at least twice a week, it does lead us to think about how beneficial this actually is. Of course, there is the convenience of buying food on the go and spending less time meal prepping in the morning or the night before, yet the potential health risks of consuming too much salt in one meal is alarming. 

Considering both of these studies, then, has the UK Government created a coherent strategy on how to tackle health concerns, and promote healthier choices for meal deals, or even label what could or could not be a good choice? As a firm believer in everything being good for you in moderation, I decided to take a closer inspection into what the government has previously set out for maintaining a healthy relationship with food. One proposal was to scrap the ‘Buy one get one free’ offers on chocolate bars and sweets, along with placing confectionary in well-seen locations in shops (including near tills and on the ends of aisles); this was set to be enacted by April 2022, in order to limit how much someone was spending on such foods, as well as encourage us, the consumers, to make better-informed choices for ourselves regarding nutritional values. However, according to The Independent in May 2022, this policy was still not put in place, with talks in the Government of it being postponed.

70% of meal deals sold on high streets are high in salt

There have also been calls from Action on Salt for food companies to lower the salt levels in food, with Professor Graham MacGregor (Queen Mary University of London) claiming this is ‘the most cost-effective measure’ to make healthy eating more of a reality. There had been several probes into this to be completed by 2024, but even now some of these targets still haven’t been met. So, how can we be fully informed on what’s suitable for a meal deal and how we can eat healthily, when we haven’t yet got clear guidance? The Government is also yet to respond to the University of Birmingham’s study from earlier in this article, which suggests there should be more legislative measures to promote healthier eating and highlight a general recommended calorie intake.

For me, however, there is another aspect of this argument we should consider: mental health. Of course, there is no denying that we should all do our best to eat nutritious food, and try to keep things, like salt, to a lower level of consumption. But is it truly positive for any of us to be constantly worrying about what meal deals we choose? Yes, we should be aware of the health benefits of certain foods, and yes, we should take note of eating in a well-balanced way, yet is it equally important to check we’ve kept to a particular limit of calories per day, per lunch, even per snack and drink? Calorie counting can be useful, yet the harm it can cause for our own perception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods is alarming, and could lead to distorted views of what we should be fuelling ourselves with. The basic description of a calorie, after all, is the energy it provides us, not necessarily a number which should indicate whether we eat something or not. Whilst it is useful to have an awareness of this, I also don’t take the view that monitoring this on a daily basis will help achieve the desired effect- if anything, it could potentially lead to a mentally harmful perspective of food, which is something nobody at any age should have to feel.

But is it truly positive for any of us to be constantly worrying about what meal deals we choose?

So, with that being said, what can we do to inform ourselves in a mentally positive way about meal deals, and how we could give our bodies the love it deserves? One thing to keep in mind- without considering specific numbers- the traffic light system found on most food products. This will be normally located at the bottom of a packet, and it indicates whether something is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in a particular thing, e.g. salt. Green is the healthiest choice. There are a vast array of choices to be found at the food outlets on campus, for example Spar and Boots in the Portland Building; both of these have broad selections of foods to eat. Boots in particular has a variety of healthy options, including pasta boxes, salads and plant-based snacks, all of which will have nutritious benefits to you. Spar equally has these choices, along with a great selection of smoothies, lower-calorie waters and drinks boasting health benefits (one choice I personally love is the Immunitea range, which has added vitamins). 

Another way of bringing healthier choices into your everyday diet is adding fruit and veg around your lunch: perhaps packing some fruit to bring to campus every day, or eating more vegetables or salad at nighttime is an ideal way for you to balance out your eating? Although it takes more time, meal prepping and bringing your own lunch to campus is also an option- its cost effectiveness and chance for you to bulk out meals with nutritious foods is certainly one reason for you to give it a go! If this option isn’t ideal for you, and you’d prefer to stick to meal deals, then finding other ways to bring nutrition into your diet alongside that is equally valid. Whilst researching for this article, I found Boots’ webpage about what their meal deals have to offer (and it also contains some really valuable information about eating in a balanced way!), which can be found here: Healthier Boots meal deal picks – Boots

meal prepping and bringing your own lunch to campus is also an option

The most important thing to take away from this article is that not one option works for all. Everybody’s lifestyles and daily routines are different, and meal deals are often the route many students choose, given how manic our timetables can be. Ultimately, as long as we’re aware of certain health benefits and downfalls of meal deals, and the ways in which we can create balanced meals for ourselves around this, if needed- in a mentally positive mindset- then we can all move towards having a well-informed choice when it comes to picking what we eat for lunch.

Holly Philpott

Featured image courtesy of franki via UnSplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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