As everyone reading this will be aware, the FIFA World Cup 2018 is just around the corner. Players and supporters from 32 nations around the world will be flocking to Russia for a festival of football.

To get into the spirit of the competition, we’ve prepared our own, health- and nutrition-based tournament to accompany it: the 2018 World Cup of National Dishes.

We hope that, as well as celebrating the wonderful cuisines that the 32 participating countries have to offer (and, of course, generally being a bit of fun), the following will also serve as an informative guide on healthy eating.

We gathered data from several sources, including recipe and nutrition sites, to put the competition together.

The eventual winner of the tournament will be the country whose national meal (comprising a main course, starter, dessert, snack and alcoholic beverage) prevails as the healthiest in a selection of nutritional categories; including calorie, salt, sugar and alcohol content.

We also asked Treated.com Clinical Lead, Dr Atkinson, to give us some insight on reference intakes for each of these nutritional categories, as well as his take on some of the findings.

Let’s get started...

The Group Stage (Main Course)

For the opening round of the competition, we analysed the calorie content of what we considered to be the national main courses of each participating country.

In short, calories are a measurement of energy, which our bodies burn through activity and exercise. It is important to balance energy input and output, as someone who consistently consumes more calories than they spend is likely to put on weight; and when someone becomes overweight, this can over time increase the risk of illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Men are advised to consume around 2500 calories in order to maintain a healthy weight, and women around 2000. A good guide to use for calorie intake is the “400-600-600” rule:

  • aim for 400 calories at breakfast
  • and then 600 each for lunch and dinner
  • with the spare 400-900 leaving room for a couple of healthy snacks and drinks.

So, getting back to the tournament:

  • Out of each group of four (and using the group lineups as they’ll be in the actual World Cup) the two main courses with the lowest calorie count advanced their country to the next stage.

Here are the results of groups A-D:

  • No huge surprises for the winner of Group A as Egypt coast through with Koshari, a very healthy rice dish consisting of lentils and chickpeas in a signature tomato sauce.
  • Perhaps some question marks remain over how Uruguay managed to hold down second place given some of the ingredients of Chivito (beef steak, bacon and mozzarella) but this is where portion size comes into play; with a Chivito sandwich serving being smaller than the Russian and Saudi dishes.
  • Group B was the most calorific, seeing the two Southern European dishes (Paella and Portuguese stew) just scraping through.
  • Iran and Morocco can consider themselves hard done by, as North African cuisines traditionally containing vegetables and pulses tend to be a healthier option. (But, as history has repeatedly told us, the World Cup is merciless and takes no prisoners.)
  • Dark horses Peru were the standout team of the group stage with an impressive score of just 201.6 calories per portion of national dish Ceviche.
  • Also in group C, Australia’s Meat Pie managed to see off culinary giants France in a shock upset, whose Beef Bourguignon was too calorific to advance.
  • Hearty Croatian Cobanac stew topped group C, with Argentina coming through in somewhat controversial fashion. Again, team selection made the difference for Argentina, whose Asados (simply barbequed meat) might have fared worse had carbs come on a late substitute.

And here are the results from groups E-H:

  • The two heavy dishes of Brazilian Feijoada and Swiss Fondue were no match for the lean Serbian hamburger, Pljeskavica, who narrowly beat Costa Rica’s Gallo pinto (also advancing) to top the group.
  • In a similar story to Group E, two heavy dishes from Northern European countries helped their opponents seal group F; with Germany’s Bratwurst and Swedish Meatballs proving too calorific for South Korea’s Bibimbap and Mexico’s Mole Pablano.
  • Unfortunately, England crashed out of Group G in last place as one of the worst performers of the tournament (let’s hope this isn’t a sign of things to come). The Roast beef dinner finished firmly in last place, with the Tunisian Couscous and Belgian Carbonnade flamande taking the two top spots.
  • Lastly, Japan’s cuisine impressively showed it’s lean qualities in Group H with just 255.5 calories in the Chicken ramen. Columbia took home the wooden spoon with 970 calories in their Bandeja paisa (a dish containing powdered beef, pork belly and chorizo).

Last 16 (Main Course + Dessert)

The featured category of the second round was sugar; namely in national desserts.

There are several different types of sugar, and these are processed differently in the body. Some occur naturally in fruit and vegetables, and in dairy products, whereas fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes and biscuits mostly contain added sugar.

Dr Atkinson explains that it is important to differentiate between these when planning what we eat.

‘The reference intake for total sugars for an adult is 90 grams, but this amount refers to all sugars in the foods we eat. Foods containing added sugar, such as sweets and fizzy drinks, should make up no more than 5 percent of daily calorie intake; bringing the recommended limit for added sugar to roughly 30 grams a day.’

A diet containing a consistently high level of added sugar can impact on health in several ways, increasing the risk of metabolic disorders such as high cholesterol, hypertension, obesity and diabetes.

Returning to the action, for the second round stage and beyond we adopted a top trump style approach, whereby a ‘goal’ was given for each winning category.

In the second round specifically, we considered the sugar content of national desserts (in addition to the calorie content of national main courses).

For example, Egypt (up against Portugal) had

  • fewer calories in their main course
  • and less sugar in their dessert

and so progressed on a 2-0 scoreline.

In the event of a 1-1 scoreline, we gave the victory to the nation with the better score for the featured category, sugar.

For example, Spain and Uruguay drew 1-1, but Spain’s sugar content was a whole 10 grams lower so they progressed to the quarter finals.

We tried to be as specific as we could, but choosing desserts for each individual country was not always straightforward, as many countries share ‘regional’ desserts with other neighboring nations.

For example, it could be argued that almost all North-African and Middle-Eastern countries have a form of sweet rice in their pantheon of desserts as do Spain, France and most of South America. The same could be said of the Tres Leches cake, which is associated with many Latin and Central American countries.

Without further ado, here are the results of the last 16:

  • Mexico, South Korea and Uruguay all stood out as having particularly high sugar contents for their respective desserts (Mexican flan with 50.2g, Patbingsu at 54g and Chaja cake at 40g). Considering the recommended daily limit of 30 grams of added sugar, upwards of 50g can be considered a high intake.

This saw all three of them succumb to the pressure that knockout competition brings:

  • Uruguay going out to Spain’s Churros (just under 30g) on ‘sugar difference’
  • South Korea going out 0-2 to a (small but rich) portion of Costa Rica’s Tres Leches cake (28g)
  • and Mexico exiting the tournament after losing 0-2 to Serbia’s Torta Cokolada (still a considerable 40g).

Elsewhere in the round:

  • In a titanic clash of healthy cuisines, Japan came out on top against pre-tournament favourites Tunisia. But Tunisia are entitled to feel hard done by: the Tunisian donut Bambalouni isn’t made with sugar, but may typically be garnished with a liberal sprinkling; whereas Japan’s sweet delicacy, Mochi (small, sweet rice balls) are made with sugar but contain less than 14 grams of sugar per 100 grams. (One mochi may only weigh around 30 grams.)
  • Egypt advanced past Portugal 2-0 with their nut and pastry offering, Om Ali (28g), proving less sugarific per portion than Arroz doce (48g).
  • In addition to Spain and Egypt, Belgium, Peru and Croatia all advanced.

With the exception of Tunisia’s Bambalouni, flour and dough-based desserts were the best performers on the whole. Spain’s churros con chocolate, Peru’s Picarones, Croatia’s Fritule and Belgium’s Liege Waffles all went through to the quarter finals. These desserts are typically made with no or little sugar, instead using it as a coating.

Of course, donuts do often tend to be cooked in oil and therefore high in saturated fat, which isn’t healthy; but the above does help to demonstrate that desserts where you can take an ‘add your own’ approach with sugar can be a useful option in limiting sugar intake.

Quarter-Finals (Main Course + Dessert + Snack)

For this stage, the featured category was salt content in national snacks.

‘We need salt in our diet, but most people eat too much of it.’ Dr Atkinson tells us. ‘Having too much salt on a regular basis is thought to be the leading cause of high blood pressure.’

‘The adult RI is 2-6 grams per day. Not adding salt to food is one way to cut down on salt intake, but some foods (savoury snacks in particular) may be high in salt anyway, so it’s always a good idea to read the label and keep an eye on how much you’re eating.’

(If you see a value in mg of sodium, you can convert this into salt content by multiplying by 2.5. For example, 500mg or 0.5g of sodium converts into 1.25g of salt.)

The snacks we considered varied from small side dishes (such as Egypt’s falafel from Egypt) to packaged savoury confectionery (such as Smoki Flips from Serbia).

Again, we considered these in addition to main course calorie content and dessert sugar content; making the round a ‘best of three’.

Here are the results:

  • Peru’s impressive tournament run came to an end in a closely-fought battle with Croatia. Their Cancha Salada (roasted maize) contained 1.1g per 100g, more than double Croatia’s Burek (a filled pastry roll) at just under half a gram per 100g.
  • Japan continued their run, with the Curry bun (0.67g) beating Belgium’s Frites, which was the worst performer in the round with a whopping 3.3g of salt per portion.
  • A portion of Costa Rica’s Chifrijo (1.6g) was low enough in salt to see off Serbia’s Smoki flips (2.2g).
  • A portion of Spain’s Pincho de Tortilla (0.45g) was lower in salt than a portion of Egypt’s Falafel (0.74g), but Egypt progressed on the strength of their lower calorie and sugar contents from earlier rounds.

Semi-Finals (Main Course + Dessert + Snack + Alcoholic Drink)

For the remaining four teams (Egypt, Costa Rica, Croatia and Japan), the feature category was the alcohol content of what we determined to be the national alcoholic beverage.

Media headlines claiming the supposed health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption have appeared on a regular basis in previous years, and still do. However, it’s becoming more widely-accepted thought that no level of alcohol consumption is ‘safe’.

‘Last year, UK guidelines on alcohol consumption changed slightly.’ Dr Atkinson explains. ‘The lower risk limit for adults is no more than 14 units per week. They also state that people who do drink 14 units should spread their consumption out over more than one day, and have at least 2-3 alcohol free days each week.’

Again, excess alcohol consumption has been associated with various health issues, including metabolic disease.

Back to the competition:

Alcohol is prohibited in Egypt in public places or shops (with the exception of hotels and tourist facilities), but beer is said to largely consumed at home by many people.

So, to enable them to compete at this stage, we used the alcohol content from a leading beer present in Egypt called ‘Stella’ (not to be confused with Stella Artois).

Where the scores were level at 2-2, we decided to take the overall percentage difference between the two sides for all four categories (main course, dessert, snack and alcoholic beverage) as our ‘penalty shoot-out’. The team with the most favourable percentage difference won.

Here are the results:

A 2-2 thriller saw Croatia go through against Egypt on total percentage difference.

Even though Egypt had a lower alcohol content in their Stella beer than in Croatia’s Rakia, Croatia’s significantly lower sugar content and salt content from previous rounds tipped the balance, and sealed them a place in the final.

In the other semi-final between Japan and Costa Rica, Japan won 3-1. Despite the very high alcohol content in a serving of Sake compared to Guaro, their dishes nutritionally outplayed Costa Rica’s in all the other categories to book a showdown with Croatia.

Third place playoff

For our third-place playoff, we used the same game parameters as our semi-final round.

Egypt were able to earn some redemption by beating out Costa Rica 4-1. While the two nations scored one goal a piece on the sugar content of their dessert, Egypt came out on top in the other three categories to book their place on the winners podium.

Final (Starter + Main Course + Dessert + Snack + Alcoholic Drink)

Ironically, the competition ends at the beginning; in the final, we used the calorie content of Croatia and Japan’s national starters as our feature category.

We considered this in addition to the data from previous rounds, making it a best-of-five.

Japan’s Gyoza (5 pieces) against Croatia’s Octopus Salad.

Here is the result you’ve all been waiting for:

In a 3-2 thriller, Japan’s Chicken Ramen and Mochi put them 2-0, before Croatia’s Burek and Rakia brought them back on level terms. But in the end, the Gyoza, at 285 calories per portion, over the Octopus salad at 339, sealed the trophy.

So there you have it: Japan are the winners of the World Cup Food of Nutrition. Their set meal as selected by Treated.com:

Gyoza to start, followed by a chicken ramen, and some mochi for dessert. Then to accompany some real football viewing, a curry bun and a small glass of sake.

Speaking on the winners, Dr Atkinson explained that the result likely wouldn’t come as a surprise to many.

Looking at the participating countries, Japan were always going to be favourites. Japanese cuisine is characterised by lean cuts of meat, fish, grains and vegetables. The typical Japanese diet is comparatively low in calories and saturated fats but high in nutrients and antioxidants (which could perhaps go some way to explaining why their obesity rates are among the lowest in the world).’

Furthermore, Japanese food preparation techniques are also healthier than most countries. Sushi for example is served raw, and grilling is usually preferred to frying (except in the case of tempura).

Caveats

  • Many countries obviously have more than one national main course, dessert or signature alcoholic drink. After undertaking some research, we selected those we felt were most synonymous with the country of origin, but obviously what any one country’s national dish is can be open to debate.
  • There is no one universal source which provides nutritional info on every dish we chose to include, so we obtained data from various resources, including cookery and recipe sites, restaurant nutritional info and food retailers.
  • Where we needed to determine portion sizes for main courses because portion-specific data was not available (and was only available per 100g), we used a 350 gram serving as a guideline.

Knockout stage summary