Eating for a Marathon: Carb Loading

Part of marathon preparation is doing some shorter races in the lead up to the big day. Shorter races can be a good gauge of how your training is progressing – many people set new personal best times at shorter distances when training for a marathon. Shorter events also give you the chance to practice all your routines around racing – training the week before, your clothing choices, pacing during the race, and of course, your nutrition.

I had looked to do at least one 10K and a half marathon before my full marathon in October, but those races were cancelled. So, with the help of my husband, I did a couple of faux races. This involved getting up bright and early, going through my pre-race routines (same breakfast, warm up, etc.), driving to a park 20 minutes away (so I was less familiar with the route), and starting at exactly 9am. For the half marathon I even did a full, three day, carb loading diet – and boy, was that an eye opener!

Carbohydrates are stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. When we exercise, that glycogen is broken down for energy. The higher the intensity of the exercise, the faster you burn through your glycogen stores. In training, having slightly depleted glycogen stores is normal, and can even encourage the body to use fats as fuel (see the previous post on Using Fats as Fuel). However, in a race situation, you want all the carbs you can get to maximise performance.

Carb loading is when an athlete eats a lot of carbohydrates in the days before a race, to maximise glycogen stores. Generally speaking, you only need to do this if the race will last more than 90 minutes. There are various ways to carb load, but recent research has shown that eating at least 6g/Kg of carbohydrate, and up to 12g/Kg, in the 2-3 days leading up to the race is enough to fully top up glycogen stores1. Especially as most people are resting or training very lightly in the days leading up to their race.

This is well known and I have dispensed this advice to my athletes for years. What I didn’t realise is just how much carbohydrate that is, and how hard it is to eat that much! Especially if you are trying to keep the calorie count within reason. For example, I weigh 62 Kg so 6g/Kg is 372g of carbohydrate, so that’s my minimum target. The day before my half marathon I ate:

Breakfast: Two boiled eggs with two gluten free crumpets topped with butter and jam, a 200ml glass of pineapple juice, and a large mug of tea with milk and sugar.

Morning Snack: A mug of tea with milk and sugar and two small, gluten-free custard creams.

Lunch: Small grilled mackerel fillet with plenty of rice, steamed broccoli and carrots. Watermelon for dessert followed by a mug of tea with milk and sugar and two small, gluten-free custard creams.

Afternoon Snack: Three slices of toasted gluten free bread topped with reduced fat Brussels pate and caramelised red onion chutney, with 36g of dried apricots on the side. Two satsumas (small oranges) shortly afterwards.

Dinner: Free from spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and a beef and lentil meatball, topped with a small amount of Parmesan cheese. Frozen yoghurt ice lolly.

In total that was 2660 kcal – at least 500kcal more than I would normally eat on a rest day. Of that, 411g was carbohydrates, including 146g of sugar – well above the recommended. That’s only 6.6g/Kg of carbs and I have to say I felt stuffed! I can’t imagine eating the amount of food an 80 Kg runner would have to take in to get above 7 or 8g/Kg of carbs. Even though, as a nutritionist, I have created menu plans that do exactly that!

You’ll notice my intake of processed foods was well above normal – I am not in the habit of having crumpets, bread and biscuits all in the same day! Part of that was trying to avoid too much fibre. We get most of our fibre from carbohydrates (wholegrains, vegetables, etc.), so carb loading can mean a big increase in fibre. Normally a high fibre diet is good, but too much fibre too close to a race can lead to gasto distress during the race. So many athletes switch to lower fibre, “white” carbs when carb loading. Hence my breakfast of crumpets rather than the usual porridge.

There was also 88g of protein (1.4g/Kg) and 73g was fats. This is a perfectly healthy amount of both but probably too much when carb loading. At the time I chose mackerel because it’s an oily fish high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation and help with recovery. And I had pate on my toast because it’s high in iron (often low in runners) and vitamin A. However, both are high in fat and in hindsight, I’m not sure I need. I could have kept the calorie count down by choosing lower fat white fish and a lower fat, high carb toast topping (like honey or jam).

Is carb loading worth it? Yes! I had a really good half marathon, setting a new PB. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that carb loading is more complicated than even I thought (as demonstrated by the length of this post)!

 

References

1. Vitale, K. and Getzin, A. 2019. Nutrition and Supplement Update for the Endurance Athlete: Review and Recommendations. Nutrients. 2019 Jun; 11(6): 1289. doi: 10.3390/nu11061289

Eating for a Marathon: Weight Loss

Last week I talked about some of the techniques I used to encourage my body to use fats as fuel. Most people assume that burning more fat during exercise will result in weight loss.  Sadly, this is not true. To lose weight, you need a calorie deficit – to be taking in less energy than you use. No calorie deficit, no weight loss, as I experienced first hand.

Like most people, I put on a few pounds over Christmas, and on 1 January 2020 I weighed in at 65.7Kg and 30% body fat. I had lost some body fat in January and early February, but I then went to Canada for a couple of weeks for a wedding. When I got back, I weighed 65.4 Kg and 29% body fat – basically back to where I was in early January. As I got back into training, I was hoping the healthier eating and increased running would lead to fat loss.

By the first of April I was down to 64Kg. However, despite an ever increasing training regime, I stayed at 64Kg and 29% body fat. Health and aesthetic benefits aside, I had another reason for wanting to shed some weight. Studies have shown that runners are, on average, two seconds per mile faster for every pound they lose. If I lost 5lbs of fat, I should be a good 4 minutes faster over the course of a marathon.

So I decided to switch up my training and nutrition for a couple of weeks to encourage weight loss. Up to that point, I’d been eating a base of around 1800Kcal per day, then adding exercise calories on top. For example, if I burned 400Kcal on a run, I ate 2200kcal that day. From the 18th of May, I switched to a 1500kcal base. I was still adding the exercise on top, so in reality I was often getting 2000kcal per day.

To ensure I was losing fat and not muscle, I increased by protein intake – at least 1.8g/Kg per day. I did keep carbohydrates in my diet, but was much more strategic in when I had them. I tried to have higher carbohydrate meals after exercise, and lower carbohydrate meals at other times. I also kept an eye on the amount of fat in my diet, to keep the calorie count down. But it wasn’t exactly a low fat diet either. Of course, there was no alcohol and very few refined sugars (the kind you find in chocolate, cake, etc.).

I also switched up my training to further encourage fat burning. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I went for a 45 minute walk before breakfast, while on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I did an hour long fasted run. I kept my hill sprints on Monday afternoons, and my long run on Saturdays. I was up to an hour and a half on the long run, so I did have breakfast before, but I didn’t take on any carbs during the run. There were also a couple of HIIT/strength training sessions per week (as normal) and I made an effort to get 10,000 steps a day, most days of the week.

And it worked. On June first I weighed in at 61.8Kg and 26.3% body fat. In two weeks I had lost over 2kg and most of that was body fat, not muscle. However, it was not easy. I was often tired and hungry, despite a high protein and high fibre diet. And the quality of my hill reps and HIIT sessions really suffered – I just didn’t have the energy to push myself.

In some ways losing weight to get faster is a short cut. In two weeks I lost enough weight to take 4 minutes off my marathon time. It could take months to get that much from training. And it can be tempting to keep going, especially when you know you have plenty of body fat to lose (26% body fat is high for a runner). But it is a game that catches up with you in the end – as I discovered, your training really suffers.  I decided that I would get better results by hitting all my training targets, rather than chasing a lower body weight.

The good news is that on September second I was still 61.8 kg –  no more, no less. All while fuelling ever increasing amounts of training!

Please note: This is a description of my personal experience of losing body fat to meet a specific performance goal. It is not meant to be taken as a recommendation for anyone else. Using these techniques to lose weight may not be appropriate for you and your circumstances.

Eating for a Marathon: Using Fats as Fuel

As it turns out, nine months is a long time to be training for one event. So like most athletes, I do follow a periodized training plan, where different phases of training have slightly different goals. Being a sports nutritionist, I also have different nutrition goals to support my training during my different phases. And one of my first goals was to improve my body’s ability to use fats as fuel.

The Why

As a sports scientist I love data. So in January, I booked in for some physiology testing at Loughborough University. The information you get from this type of testing can then guide your training – do I need more long slow runs to build my aerobic base, or more high intensity intervals to improve VO2 max?

Aside from showing how little running fitness I had in general, the testing showed I was relatively poor at using fats for fuel, even at very low speeds. This is a particular problem for slower marathoners such as myself. See, even highly trained athletes can only store enough carbohydrates to get through 60-90 minutes of exercise. Of course, you can top up your carbohydrate stores during exercise by having energy gels or sports drinks, but most runners can only tolerate 60g of carbohydrates per hour (or less).

Based on previous experience, I will be burning at least 60Kcal per Km, which is over 2500Kcal for a whole marathon. Assuming I have enough carbs stored in my muscles for the first hour (about 550 Kcal), then take in 60g of carbs per hour (about 960 Kcal), that leaves 1000Kcal my body has to get from somewhere. If I can teach my body to use fats as a fuel over carbohydrates, then I am less likely to run out of energy before the end of the race.

The How

The easiest way to force your body to use fats as fuel is to eat a high fat, low carbohydrate diet. However, I’ve been down that road before, and I can’t say it appeals. Especially as I would have to maintain such a diet for over 9 months of training! Plus, research has shown that while high fat diets can increase time to exhaustion in endurance tests, top end sprint speed and power tend to decrease1. You wouldn’t think that matters in the marathon, especially for someone targeting four and half hours. But another result of my testing was a need to improve my VO2 max and overall running speed. That meant regular sprint intervals and faster paced training sessions. To get the most out of these sessions, I would need full carbohydrate stores.

An alternative way to encourage fat burning is to periodize your carbohydrate and fat intake2. This involves eating more carbohydrates on days with high intensity, high speed sessions, and fewer carbohydrates on rest and easy days. You can also teach your body to use fats as fuel by fasting and incorporating fasted training into your plan3. This is where you go for a run first thing in the morning before breakfast, after your usual overnight fast (about 12 hours since dinner). As you will have used up most of your carbohydrates as you sleep, your body is forced to rely on fats for fuel. It does feel harder, which is why these runs tend to be less than an hour at an easy pace.

Here’s an example of how I incorporated periodized carbohydrate intake with fasting into my training (in March, April and early May):

  • Monday: Moderate to high carbohydrate diet. Sprint interval session on hills in the afternoon.
  • Tuesday mornings: Fasted easy run before breakfast, then eat normally the rest of the day (moderate carbohydrate ~4g/kg).
  • Wednesdays: Rest day. Small, very low carbohydrate breakfast (usually a two egg cheese omelette) and fasted for the rest of the day (only water and green tea).
  • Thursday: Higher carbohydrate breakfast and lunch (more than 1g/kg carbohydrate in each meal) before a marathon pace run on Thursday afternoon. Back in March, marathon pace was a Tempo run (a pace I could only sustain for 15-20 minutes).

The Result

I would not recommend the above schedule to everyone, but it seemed to work for me. I was able to increase the pace of my long, slow runs while keeping the same effort (I use a heart rate monitor), indicating I was getting better at using fats for fuel. It did have it’s drawbacks though, which I will discuss in the next post.

When it comes to sports nutrition, I it very true that everyone is an experiment of one.

References

As always, there are many papers on this topic, but I have tried to provide open access ones.

  1. Burke et al. 2020. Adaptation to a low carbohydrate high fat diet is rapid but impairs endurance exercise metabolism and performance despite enhanced glycogen availability. https://doi.org/10.1113/JP280221
  2. Jeukendrup, A. 2017. Periodized Nutrition for Athletes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5371625/
  3. Aird, TP et al. 2018. Effects of fasted vs fed-state exercise on performance and post-exercise metabolism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. 10.1111/sms.13054

New Series! Eating for a Marathon

Warning! This is going to get personal.

I’ve been running a lot this year. Many people took up running in March, as a way to get outside and exercise while gyms were closed. However, my running journey began in December. After a difficult and disappointing 2019 (including a death in the family) I decided I needed a new big goal to refocus my training. I had run my first marathon with my husband in 2018, but bad weather and inconsistent training meant a disappointing time. So I decided 2020 was the year I would tackle 42.2 Km properly, with 9 months of dedicated training.

Many things did not go well when I rant my first marathon in October 2018. Training had been inconsistent throughout the summer months (among other things, I took a trip to Canada) and my longest run before the race was only 24 Km. On the day it was cold, pouring with rain and quite windy. Our chosen race had a very dodgy route in the middle miles, including running next to busy roads with no pavement. From 30 Km in, we started taking longer and longer walk breaks. Needless to say, it was not a good time – in either sense of the word. The one bright spot is that we did, in fact, finish the race.

Knowing the beast that awaits and the number of things that can go wrong, I’ve set several goals this time around. To start, just finishing the race without walking (except where necessary, such as at busy aid stations) would be a step up. Secondly, to set a new personal best time – so anything under five and a half hours. Thirdly, should training go well and the weather co-operate on the day, to run the marathon in less than four and half hours. This last is a significant stretch as, at the beginning of January, I couldn’t even manage 5 Km at the pace I would have to sustain for 42 Km come October.

Strangely, going into lockdown in March produced some of the most consistent training I’ve ever had. With very few fixed time commitments  sticking to my marathon training plan became a way of scheduling my days. I also had more time to focus on recovery such as stretching and foam rolling, or even taking a nap if needed. As my runs got longer, I couldn’t help wondering how anyone does serious marathon training with a full-time job.

Of course, for me, part of getting my training right was getting my nutrition right. Even after years of successfully advising a variety of endurance athletes on their nutrition, the realities of doing it for myself produced some surprising insights. This is what I will be sharing in a new series of posts. Everything from eating for training and long runs, to carb loading and weight loss. Yes, this is nutrition for runners, but much of the information will apply to anyone who is active, whatever their goals.

Sadly, like so many others, the race I had registered for in October has now been cancelled. But having come this far, I still plan to run 42.2 Km on the day as planned. As Garmin is my witness, a marathon is going to happen!

Healthy Eating on Budget

Tip 1: Have a Plan

Tip 2: Make your own meals

Tip 3: Make your own snacks

Tip 4: Choose natural, minimally processed foods

Tip 5: Learn to love your freezer

Tip 6: Make big re-usable food

Tip 7: Mind the drinks

Tip 8: Cut down on alcohol

Tip 9: Cut down on junk food

Tip 10: Eat less red and processed meat

Tip 11: Become a part-time vegetarian

Tip 12: Eat what’s in season

Tip 13: You don’t need superfoods to be healthy

Tip 14: Swap big brands for own brands

Tip 15: Avoid the grocery store

Tip 16: Be wary of supermarket offers

Healthy eating on a budget: Bringing it all together

Why we all need Vitamin D

Foods rich in vitamin D

Though I have a fairly healthy, balanced diet, I do take some vitamins. I take a daily multivitamin as insurance, to make sure I get a little bit of everything every day. However, I also take a vitamin D3 supplement on the advice of my doctor. About a year after moving to the UK, my blood levels of vitamin D were below normal. This is when I learned just how important adequate vitamin D levels can be.

Vitamin D is produced when sunlight hits our skin, plus we get small quantities from our diet. It’s essential for proper bone growth and maintenance. The most common disease of vitamin D deficiency is rickets, found in children whose bones fail to develop properly. Even today, there are children with rickets in the UK. As northern countries (like Great Britain) have much less sunlight in winter, and people spend a lot of time indoors, it’s hard to get enough vitamin D.  Children with darker skin tones are particularly at risk. Simply put, the darker your skin pigment, the more natural sunscreen it contains. So less vitamin D is produced for the same light exposure. This has little effect on those living in African or Asian countries with plenty of strong sunlight year round, but is a real problem for darker skinned people living in cloudy northern countries.

What’s interesting about vitamin D is its biological actions are still being discovered. Low levels have been associated with reduced immune function (more colds and flu), depression, high blood pressure, some cancers and diabetes. There is also evidence that athletes need more vitamin D than the general population, depending on their sport. Many impact sports, including running, cause micro tears in the bone that then need to be repaired. This is a normal part of adapting to exercise, but if there is insufficient calcium and vitamin D to make new bone, symptoms like stress fractures and reduced immunity can result.

The UK government recommends everyone get at least 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day in winter. Unfortunately, as the Covid-19 crisis continues, many of us are now spending most of our time indoors. This is why the government has issued new guidelines, suggesting everyone consider taking vitamin D3 supplements until lockdown is lifted. You can also increase your intake with foods like oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc.), red meat, liver, egg yolks, mushrooms and some fortified foods (for example, milk in North America has added vitamin D, but not in the UK.).

As I’m now at home 23 hours of the day and training for my second marathon (with lots of high impact running), I’ll certainly be taking my vitamin D!

You can find information about the new Vitamin D guidelines and answers to common questions on the BBC news website, at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52371688.

Healthy Eating on a Budget: Bringing it all together

After three and a half weeks of Healthy Eating on a Budget tips, it’s time to bring this series to a close. We’ve seen how you can change both your eating and grocery shopping habits to eat well and save money. However, it can seem like a lot of information, so I’ve created a handy step by step guide to bring all those tips together.

Plan your weekly shop

  1. Start by having a look at some healthy recipes which use seasonal ingredients (you can check what’s in season on the Vegetarian Society website). Consider trying some vegetarian meals.
  2. Think about making big re-usable food earlier in the week which you can have for lunches and dinners later in the week. You can also check your freezer to see if there are any big reusables left from previous weeks which could be eaten this week.
  3. Decide what you’re going to eat for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. Look at your schedule and be realistic about which days you’ll be able to spend time cooking.
  4. Check your cupboards and freezer to see what you have, and what you need to buy to make those meals. Pay particular attention to foods you plan to eat several times. For example, if you plan to have porridge for breakfast five days a week, and you use 50g of oats each time, you’ll need at least 250g of oats.
  5. Make your shopping list.

 Shop strategically

  1. Consider whether you want to go to the grocery store or whether online shopping can save you time and money.
  2. Only buy the things on your shopping list. Do not even go down the aisles which are nothing but crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks.
  3. Compare the price of different brands and package sizes using price per weight. If this is a hassle, buy supermarket own brands wherever possible, as they are usually better value.
  4. Consider buying things like chicken breasts in bulk and then freezing them at home.
  5. Spend some time in the frozen aisle. In particular, look for out of season produce (such as berries in December) and frozen seafood and fish fillets.

Eat well

  1. When you get your shopping home, check the use by dates on all fresh food. If you have some chicken or fish that will be past it’s use by date before you plan to cook it, freeze it.
  2. Break up any big packages of chicken, meat or fish into individual portion sizes and freeze in plastic bags.
  3. Do any baking, (such as making your own flapjacks or muffins for snacks), and make your big reusables as soon as you can so you are ready for the week ahead.
  4. Make sure you eat the food you buy. If you decide not to cook your planned meal one evening (i.e. you go out to eat or get take away), remember to freeze any fresh ingredients (such as vegetables) which might go off.
  5. Remember the 80/20 rule: Get in right 80% of the time and you can be more relaxed about the other 20%. It’s OK to have the occasional treat or go out with your mates on a Friday night. Acknowledge that going out once in a while is healthy too and plan for it, so you don’t waste food. Healthy eating should be for life, so make it sustainable and enjoyable!

I hope you have enjoyed this series on healthy eating on a budget. If you have any questions, or any ideas for future blog posts, please get in touch!

If you enjoyed this post, remember to like, share, and leave a comment below!

Tip 16: Be wary of supermarket offers

When it comes to saving money on your weekly shop, supermarket offers can seem like the smart choice. By buying what’s on sale, you should be getting the best price. Sadly, this is not always the case, and many supermarkets actually use special offers to entice us to spend more! This means that if you want to save money, you need to be wary of supermarket offers.

Once again we come back to the problem with big brands. You’ll notice that the big offers prominently displayed on end caps tend to be for big brand processed foods. Clearly their usual price is higher than for supermarket own brands. However, this is often true even when they go on sale. For example, Tesco currently have Sharwoods Tikka Masala cooking sauce on sale for half price – £0.92 for a 420g jar instead of £1.85. But Tesco own brand Tikka Masala cooking sauce is only £0.75 for a 500g jar – and it’s lower in fat!

Grocery stores will often have multi-buy deals (3 for 2 offers, or 2 for £5) which makes it even harder to tell if you are getting a good deal. The only way to know which product is actually cheaper is to compare prices by weight. Supermarkets usually list the price per 100g or per Kg on the label on the shelf, just under the unit price (the price for one jar, one box, one loaf, etc.). Once you get used to checking prices this way, you quickly realise that the unit price hardly matters. Let’s take two jars of strawberry jam. One is £1.60 for 340g, while the second is £2.00 for 370g. You may think buying a bigger jar is a better deal. But actually, the 340g jar works out to £0.47/100g, while the second is £0.54/100g. All other things being equal, the smaller jar is actually the better deal.

Another reason big brand products are the most likely to go on sale, is that the supermarket is hoping you’ll make a permanent switch. The supermarkets are betting that, having bought the product at the sale price, you will like it so much you continue to buy it at the higher price. Plus, humans tend to lazy – most of us buy the same things every week without thinking about it. Having bought the product once, we’re much more likely to buy it again.

One area where offers are useful is in helping you identify in season fruit and vegetables. You’ll often find that when things are in season, they go on sale. As discussed previously, buying what’s in season can save you money and help the environment. It also encourages you to change up your diet regularly. For example, I use offers to vary my protein sources. I really enjoy prawns, but they can be expensive, even if you buy frozen ones. Rather than buy them every week, I wait until they are on sale and then get some. This helps me rotate what meat and fish are in my freezer and ensures I have a varied diet.

So, if staple items you usually buy, like rice or toilet paper, are on sale, go ahead and get extra. Use offers to guide your choice of in season produce and protein. But if the offer is for something you don’t usually buy, especially junk foods like crisps and ice cream, it should make no difference if they are on sale. And whatever you buy, remember to check the price per weight to make sure it really is a good deal!

If you enjoyed this post, remember to like, share, and leave a comment below!

*All prices from the Tesco.com website and are correct as of 22/01/2020

Tip 15: Avoid the grocery store

How you do your big weekly shop has a big impact on both the quality of the food you buy and how much you pay. Many people head to the supermarket at the same time every week with only a vague idea of what meals they plan to make. They then browse all the aisles, buying the same things they always buy, or what’s on sale. This almost guarantees they will end up with far more food, and more junk and processed foods, than intended. We’ve already discussed planning your meals and doing more of your own cooking. But to really save money and improve your diet, avoid the grocery store completely.

Supermarkets are wonderful places but they are in business to make money. Their goal is to get you to buy more stuff.  And supermarkets and food companies have a myriad of tricks to tempt us into buying their products. Everything from free samples and offers, to wafting the scent of fresh baked bread around. You’ll also notice that the offers prominently displayed on end caps tend to be for big brand processed foods. As discussed previously, big brands have a much higher margin than supermarket own brands. Where a product is placed on a shelf is also key. People tend to buy the product which is at eye level, in the middle of the shelf. This is where they put the premium brands, with budget brands on the top or bottom shelves.

If you want to save money, you need to shop strategically. The first step is to plan what meals you will be having this week, check your cupboards for ingredients, and make a shopping list. NEVER go grocery shopping without a list. Once in the store, do your very best to stick to the list. This means only going down the aisles you need to. By skipping the supermarket aisles dedicated to junk food and fizzy drinks, you’ll be less tempted. And remember to check the top and bottom shelves for budget versions of what you need, rather than buying the first thing you see.

You can also take it a step further. I no longer do my food shopping at a grocery store at all if I can avoid it. For the past ten years I have used online grocery ordering and delivery (a legacy of living in London without a car). I find that by ordering at home I am much more likely to plan healthy meals and stick to a shopping list. Buying junk foods becomes a conscious choice, rather than wandering down the bakery aisle and ending up with cake because it looked good. I can also check what’s in my cupboards as I go along, so rarely buy doubles of things I already have. At the same time, I am less likely to buy things simply because they are on offer or because the store was giving away free samples.

All major grocery stores in the UK now offer a delivery service. Most have the option of paying a regular monthly fee (usually £6-8) for unlimited deliveries at a time of your choosing. This means that, if you are placing an order once a week, the  delivery cost is less than £2. You certainly save that much in impulse buys alone.

I know every time I go into a grocery store I end up buying more than I planned, and the extra items are never the healthiest foods. Rather than rely on superior planning and willpower, I simply avoid the grocery store.

If you enjoyed this post, remember to like, share, and leave a comment below!

Tip 14: Swap big brands for own brands

Last week I did several posts on changes you can make to your eating habits which are both healthier and save money. This week we’ll be focusing more on how changing your shopping habits can save you money.  And by far the biggest money saving tip is to swap big brands for supermarket own brands.

Without even realising it, we are all influenced by the way food is marketed. Clever marketing gives us all kinds of ideas about different brands – which are healthier, more delicious, or associated with a desirable lifestyle. However, many of the claims made by big brands have little to do with the food inside.

This is especially true of basic ingredients like flour, sugar and milk. People regularly pay double to get Quaker porridge oats (£0.20/100g) instead of just opting for a supermarket own brand (£0.10/100g – or less!). The reality is, there just isn’t that big a difference between the two products. This is true even when you look at more complex foods, like cake or pasta sauce. Bonne Maman strawberry jam costs £2.60 for a 370g jar, whereas you can get a 454g jar of Tesco own brand strawberry jam for £0.75 – more than 4 times less!

Many people believe that they can taste the difference between premium branded products and budget ones. But research and TV shows like Eat Well for Less have consistently shown that we are rubbish at this. When the fancy labels are removed, most people have no idea if they are eating their usual brand or not.

Supermarket own brands can also be healthier than their big branded counterparts. Not always, so you have to read labels, but you’d be surprised how often this happens. Take something as simple as bread. The first four ingredients in Tesco’s Finest wholemeal loaf are wholemeal wheat flour, water, toasted rye flakes, and wheat gluten. But the first four ingredients in Hovis wholemeal medium bread are wholemeal wheat flour, water, caramelised sugar and yeast. Not only is the Tesco loaf lower in sugar, but it’s higher in protein too. All at £0.99 for an 800g loaf, compared to £1.10 for the same sized Hovis loaf.

Today all supermarkets have their own branded foods, and most even have different brands at different price points. For example, you can get Tesco Finest beef rump steaks at £18.50/Kg or Boswell Farms (a Tesco budget brand) rump steaks for £10.80/Kg. We’d all like to think that there is a massive difference in the care of the animals and quality of the meat in the Finest range, but the truth is, most of the time there is no way to know. Free range and organic are legal terms, but most of the words used on food packaging is not regulated and so meaningless. Anything can be labelled as “farm fresh”, “healthy”, or “natural”. My favourite is the “Natural” Confectionary co., where the first ingredient in their jelly snakes is glucose syrup – haven’t seen that growing on trees lately!

So on your next food shop, swap the big brands for supermarket own brands  (or unbranded foods). Check the labels and taste with an open mind. You may be surprised to find just how similar these foods are to your usual brand. The more budget own brand foods you buy, the more you will save!

If you enjoyed this post, remember to like, share, and leave a comment below!

*All prices from the Tesco.com website and are correct as of 20/01/2020