The Truth About Carbs was a BBC documentary presented by Dr Xand van Tulleken. I recapped The Truth About Looking Good a while back, and this belongs to the same family of programmes which investigate everyday issues that affect our health.
Xand has well established his fascination with dieting on How to Lose Weight Well on Channel 4,and this episode mainly framed research in terms of what carbs do to our weight.
It’s been a whole two weeks at least since I’ve written about food in relation to our bank balances, so here we are again. I’m not an advocate for the diet industry or crash diets that try to cut out carbs completely partly because it rarely lines up with what health professionals recommend.
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
How Much Carbohydrate Is In Common Foods?
When Is Bread Value For Money?
Are Sports Drinks A Waste Of Money?
Should We Stop Buying “Beige” Carbs?
What Should We Buy As A “Healthy” Breakfast?
A big response to the show and of a lot of the media coverage about carbohydrates is that we tend to demonise entire food groups. This is oversimplistic and makes our relationship with food worse. I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor, so I rely on the experts to stay healthy. Not all the experts agreed though with the BBC’s treatment of the topic on this show.
On the one hand there’s fact: if we eat more calories than we need for energy, the glucose converts to fat. The body has no choice but to store the excess. On the other hand, the show specifically attributed this excess energy to carbs. They needed a quick and dirty shorthand to discuss different types of carbohydrate, so they chose the following colour coding:
White carbs = sugar
Green carbs = fibre
Beige carbs = starch
Once upon a time we had to work hard for carbs, by grinding grains into cereal for example. These days we have too easy access to carbs and most of us don’t do enough activity to justify accessing so much energy without any effort. For this reason, the show argued that white and beige carbs lead to weight gain and should probably be avoided. This was contentious online when the show aired, so I’ve tried to balance what I’ve recapped with the counter opinions.
What does this all have to do with saving money?
It’s just my brain wiring, but I tend to make fairly quick connections between information and the financial implications. Luckily for me, these instant leaps mean I end up doing far less maths than this blog might imply.
Perhaps unluckily for me, most of my understanding of the world around me is framed in terms of the value it might represent. Value for money means different things to different people depending on our spending priorities though, so I also like to imagine it gets me seeing things from more than one perspective.
If our priority is spending on fitness for weight loss for instance, we might “waste” money on a gym membership if we eat more than our activity levels need. On Eat Shop Save they featured a volunteer frustrated with paying for the gym. Despite her money and effort, she never felt any fitter, or saw a change in her appearance. (They’re two quite different goals, although many of us would assume one equals the other).
The gym membership regains its value perhaps when the nutrition is tweaked and a calorie deficit created. If the latter means spending less on bored snacking or stress drinking, then we make financial gains and other possible health gains besides any potential weight loss. (Weight loss is only one measure of health, and sometimes it’s an irrelevant one).
Eating for health and for wealth are the same thing
On the flipside, you might have a very demanding physical job. In which case, spending on food rather than the gym might be a priority for you. Depending on where the calories come from though, this could get very expensive very quickly.
As a cheap quick source of energy, a basket of carbs might be great value for money. You get the energy you’re going to burn off anyway while buying some of the cheapest ingredients around.
Perhaps I too am oversimplifying, but I don’t think either person in these two scenarios needs to ban carbs. Our national obsession with food and dieting definitely has a direct link to what we spend though. We know our health suffers without decent nutrition. Our health also suffers though if we buy a lifestyle we can’t afford and get into debt.
The programme’s not currently available to watch online on iPlayer, so I hope this rundown fills a gap. I plan to recap the other episodes on exercise and alcohol eventually through a money lens. Subscribe at the bottom of the page if you want updating on the other parts, or to keep up with anything else new on the blog.
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How Much Carbohydrate Is In Common Foods?
Dietitian Alison Barnes played a game of “blood sugar bingo”. Volunteers had to guess how many equivalent cubes of sugar different foods have. The point was to see if we realise which foods increase our sugar levels more than others.
Comment if you think you can guess how many “equivalent sugar cubes” they said were in the list below (no cheating by Googling!)
- Chocolate muffin
- White rice
- Bowl of strawberries
- Jacket potato
All of the foods have carbohydrates, and some of them are high in carbs, but this doesn’t mean we should stop buying these foods necessarily. We don’t need to fear them even if your aim is to diet for whatever reason. If we’re specifically looking for energy though, it’s useful to know which foods will pack more of a punch.
What the programme didn’t clarify is that the high carbohydrate foods didn’t have sugar cubes added. They just used this to represent the amount of glucose they turn into…This doesn’t indicate anything about their overall calories or other nutrients, so it’s only one part of the picture.
When Is Bread Value For Money?
Just a reminder that this post contains Amazon affiliate links. Don’t say I don’t ever tell you nuthin’ upfront.
Sugar and starch from carbohydrate break down quickly into glucose. However, there is another type of starch present in various breads that breaks down slower. This is because it’s a type of fibre known as resistant starch. Resistant starch also feeds certain gut bacteria and helps keep us healthy as a result according to the programme.
Wholegrain bread is a good example of resistant starch, but the benefits depend on the bread.
Xand suggested looking for wholegrain loaves like rye, sourdough, pumpernickel, or Borodinsky. So should we all rush out and buy some pumpernickel (if only because I like saying pumpernickel?)
I don’t wanna bake my own bread (yet)
What he didn’t mention is that a lot of these are priced at a premium. They can easily cost double an own brand loaf of regular wholemeal. The loaves are often smaller too.
Bread freezes well. If you usually preserve yellow-stickered 20p or 30p bread, then switching to one of these wholegrains could easily cost ten times more. Finding the value for money depends on your usual shopping habits, and your long term health goals.
Let’s investigate some examples of the varieties Xand mentioned on Amazon, so you can see the price difference. (Prices were correct as of 28/7/20, but also Amazon uses dynamic pricing, so don’t be surprised if you see different prices).
Comparing rye bread
Just one loaf of Biona Organic Rye Chia and Flax Seed Bread was £2.19.
If someone was very determined to incorporate rye bread into their diet, they could use Amazon’s Subscribe and Save feature. This nets discounts of between 5 and 25% on repeat orders of the same items. Per kilo it still works out more than plain ol’ wholemeal.
What if you bulk buy? Buying large quantities is one of my favourite shopping hacks when it brings the price down per weight. Six loaves of Biona Organic Rye Omega 3 Golden Linseed Bread is £11.94, so it costs less than buying individual loaves. Applying the 25% off subscribe and save makes it just under £1.50 per loaf.
If you are used to buying gluten free then perhaps this sounds like a bargain. Amazon makes it look tempting by offering a £10 gift card to anyone who signs up to their credit card at the same time.
You have to weigh up whether saving £10 is worth the credit application showing up on your credit file, especially if you have applied for other credit recently, or are planning something big like a mortgage application imminently. Also if you can’t afford right now to set up a direct debit to pay off a new credit card in full each month, then… I’m not a financial advisor, but you probably can’t afford to apply for the card in the first place.
I’ve met someone from the Biona family before at a food exhibition, and I’m certain they can talk at length about how being a family-owned business producing ethical, organic, and sustainably sourced food bumps up their costs. If we can’t afford to shop small, leave it to those who can to support those businesses, and only do what’s possible within our budget.
Rye bread vs sourdough bread
What about sourdough? Well, Biona lists sourdough as an ingredient in most of their rye breads anyway I think you’ll find. Everfresh’s sourdough is really “Sourdough Rye Bread with sprouted rye grains” and one loaf sets you back around £4. (In case you’re still unsure, there’s some definite rye happening there… Again, Amazon’s credit card offer makes it “free”, depending on the cost to your finances overall of applying for a credit card).
Bulk buying Everfresh Rye Sourdough Bread cuts the cost of each loaf by over half. You’d have to really love bread to order 16 loaves, but often the biggest savings on shopping come from stocking up for the long haul. I have a slightly different perspective on stocking up these days also after lockdown, especially after having to self-isolate for two weeks.
One way around this is to invest in your own starter culture and make your own. Doubling up on Mad Millie’s Sourdough Culture seems to work out the most economical.
This assumes you already have the other paraphernalia to make sourdough though.
It’s funny to me to see sourdough get so popular in the UK. It was really trendy when I was living in California several years ago, and some bakeries in San Francisco are very well known for their sourdough. Chris Hemsworth’s Centr also seemed to be big fans when I did their free trial this spring. (Let me know if you want me to write more about Centr, or budget living on the West Coast).
Pumpernickel seemed to have the highest markup of Xand’s list, with one loaf costing as much as £7. It’s made from rye meal, so these are all very closely related types of bread. Bulk buying combined with Amazon’s Subscribe & Save feature drastically changes the price per loaf of Biona’s Organic Pumpernickel.
Another thing the show mentioned is that brands sometimes add sugar to mass produced wholegrain loaves. Wholegrain tastes more bitter. If we pay top whack for wholegrain believing it’s miracle food for our waistline (and our guts), then added sugar might rain on our parade. Check the amount of added sugar in the supermarket if you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake… but don’t be afraid of all sugar just because it’s a carb. Brown breads are also high in fibre, so they don’t behave quite the same way as eating a sugar cube.
Biona’s Coconut and Cranberry Organic Rye Bread is sweetened with apple concentrate. Or more precisely the cranberries are, and that’s what I expect from any product with cranberries in the ingredients. Only a sadist would eat unsweetened cranberries, yeesh.
The cheapest way to access resistant starch is actually to freeze any wholemeal bread and then toast it when we defrost. This process converts some of the regular starch into resistant starch. This lowers the glycaemic index a bit (or how quickly we convert it into glucose).
I’ll bake my own after all
As for the Borodinsky, I think that one’s more likely to be baked at home than bought. Changed your mind about making your own bread? Hugh Jackman swears by it, but I couldn’t find his Breadman Ultimate easily in the UK. At a lower investment than I expected, Amazon’s bestseller instead is the Morphy Richards Fastbake Breadmaker.
If you’re wondering what to expect from using a bread maker, vegan cookbook YouTuber Niomi Smart has a video where she demonstrates around the nine minute mark that the results of baking bread at home can be a bit variable! Edible, but not necessarily what you’d expect to see. I think she has this fancy Panasonic SD-2511KXC Fully Automated Breadmaker with Nut Dispenser though.
Other ways to give our guts more resistant starch
White bread has the fibre and resistant starch removed. This might represent a “waste” of money if your diet is low in fibre anyway. If you’re about to run around during the next hour at work, then you might instead view white bread as gold.
Just as it’s too simple to declare good and bad carbs, it’s too easy to say that rye bread is overpriced for its benefits and that we should never buy white bread again.
Either way dieters can go back to eating bread because carbs are not an enemy. The caveat to this is that diabetics often need to be more wary of all carbs, resistant starch or no. Best to consult your doctor.
Cooking, cooling and reheating pasta and rice also increases resistant starch. I’m a proponent of batch cooking to save money, time and energy, but it turns out that this might actually be beneficial for our insides too. (But make sure you reheat food really well, especially rice).
Cooking, cooling and reheating increases resistant starch because any fats and oils attach themselves to the starch molecules at each stage, making them resistant each time.
Harry Styles is 50% made of rainbows and sparkles, and 50% made of bread. I think it’s why he’s so tall.
Are Sports Drinks A Waste Of Money?
I’ve repeated several times so far that carbs are useful as a source of energy. Most of us will have been raised with the teaching that carbohydrates are what our body uses during exercise also. Various experts soundbited off about this on an episode of Diet Secrets and How to Lose Weight if you want to read more about sports performance.
To test whether we need carbs while working out, Xand exercised while swilling (not swallowing) various unlabelled drinks. He didn’t know whether he was drinking a sports drink or not. They measured his calories burned. Then he repeated it all again after two days of recovery, but with a different unnamed drink.
One test was actually with water and the other test used a carbohydrate drink.
He covered an extra 600 metres distance when swilling the carbohydrate drink, and he burned more calories.
This is because our mouth receptors tell the brain we’re about to receive carbs. In turn the brain makes our body work harder, even though Xand didn’t actually swallow and absorb the carbs. If he drank the drink each time, he would have to counter-productively burn off the drink in addition.
This means there’s a way to increase performance in sport without overloading on fuel. It doesn’t mean that Xand’s body wasn’t using carbohydrates as an energy source at all. However, he was able to cheat a carbloader’s approach without the downside.
Obviously a Lucozade rinse is expensive though. The cheapest way to do this is to make sugar water at home. If it tastes bad, it’s irrelevant because it’s not meant to be swallowed anyway. (There’s another Harry Styles GIF that belongs here involving some cod, but I can’t deliver you everything on a plate. Ba-dum-dum-tsh).
If you regularly pay for fitness supplements including sports drinks, also take a look at my recap of Save Money Good Health. They examined what a gym bunny can stop paying for.
Should We Stop Buying “Beige” Carbs?
Dr Unwin and Dr Jen Unwin gave their type 2 diabetes patients a “green carbs” plan to mitigate any damage. These patients eat “green” carbs instead of chips, white rice, and other potatoes.
Because they are eating green vegetables instead, they are still getting carbohydrate in their diet. The Unwins say it’s not restrictive in the same way as crash diets therefore. He doesn’t get them to weigh food or count calories because he wants the way they eat to be a lifestyle. He thinks these things are too strongly associated with diets.
One patient has been following the plan for over four years which shows it’s sustainable. He was able to stop taking diabetes meds within six months.
So should everyone eat “green” carbs instead of starch?
The NHS would advise no. Starch often comes with fibre which is essential. High fibre food will still break down slower than a can of Cola for instance, even if they are both largely carbohydrate. So if we’re not diabetic we don’t really have good reason to avoid “beige” and “white” carbs completely.
The NHS also point out that when we cut out these carbs, we’re likely to just replace the calories with protein and fat unlike in the Unwin’s example. We risk eating an imbalance of other food groups instead, rather than making new friends with new vegetables.
The body still needs energy, so it still converts the replacements into glucose. Effectively your blood sugars could still raise, and the energy still needs burning off. Low carb diets also reliably cause “keto flu”. This is the unhappy physical side effects of the body relying on fat for energy instead.
This article by an NHS surgeon is also helpful in pointing out that a lot of what we refer to with a devil on our shoulder as “carbs” contain simple sugars AND starch AND dietary fibre AND protein AND fat. Phew.
Like your favourite complex TV characters, foods are not just one thing. Except for refined white sugar you put in tea and coffee. That is just a simple sugar, but it’s a bit of an island to itself.
What Should We Be Buying As A “Healthy” Breakfast?
For the purpose of this segment, they seemed to define “healthy” as something that doesn’t spike blood sugar. When you see the word “healthy” in use, ask what the author means. They might not have the same definition in mind as you.
Xand shadowed a two week trial of Dr Faisal Maassarani’s patients to see what a low carb diet would do to their blood sugar. The participants were a mix of type 2 diabetics, borderline diabetics, and non-diabetics.
If we have cereal, a piece of toast, a banana and fruit juice for breakfast they said we would consume the equivalent of 28 cubes of sugar in one sitting. This is more than our entire daily recommended allowance of carbs. When the diabetics ate this, it unsurprisingly made their blood sugar say “yoohoo! I’m here!” to the sky.
Xand suggested three alternatives:
Oats. Switching the cereal for porridge so long as it’s whole oats, and not stuffed with added ingredients should give more fibre. I am a big fan of porridge (or I should say, I like some porridge with my peanut butter. It just climbs into the bowl by itself). Lidl and Aldi sell oats for 75p/kg. Quite the bargain compared to most cereals.
Don’t worry, I already checked for you: Quaker oats on Amazon can’t beat the discounters, unless you’ve got gift cards and other discounts waiting for you in your account (aff link). Or the convenience of delivery beats travelling many miles if you don’t have a discounter or major supermarket near you. Or using this to make your basket up to £20 for free delivery balances out a massive saving on something else you’ve found that you really need. Or you own shares in Quakers or something.
However, I can’t help but notice something…porridge has carbohydrate. It looks pretty beige. So what happens to a diabetic if they eat a big ole bowl of porridge? Enquiring minds wanna know.
Eggs. These only have 1% carbohydrate and so were likely more useful to the diabetics in the group than the porridge. I guess we’ll never know as they didn’t explicitly show them eating these alternative breakfasts as part of their diet plan and then monitoring their blood glucose again as they did with the first breakfast (unless I blinked and missed it).
Six out of the seven in the small group of volunteers lost weight and the diabetics’ blood sugar levels improved.
What happens when we swap out “beige” carbs?
In this article Pixie Turner responded to the programme saying that concluding from this that everyone should eat low-carb “is unhelpful”. She also criticised their idea below to replace rice with cauliflower as they are different nutritionally. It’s not a straight swap in terms of the other nutrients that rice has. Alison’s work does revolve around diabetes patients usually though, so controlling blood sugar becomes the primary aim I guess.
Here were the chef’s ideas and dietitian Alison Barnes’ meal ideas for the group to replace “beige” carbs outside of breakfast:
- Cauliflower with cajun spiced chicken in a homemade spice mix to avoid added sugar in a premade mix
- Dark chocolate-covered strawberries (presumably with at least 70% cocoa)
- Roast celeriac/squash instead of potatoes as a side
- Chickpeas, cauliflower and spinach curry with bulgar wheat instead of white rice
- Lasagne made with aubergine instead of pasta sheets
- Key lime pie with a nut base instead of a biscuit base (ground hazelnuts and almond flour)
These options are all higher in fibre and lower generally in carbohydrate than “beige carbs”, and so diabetics may find them useful. Otherwise, as per Pixie’s input on The Independent, foods have lots of different nutrients. When we switch one food for another to avoid a demonised food group, rather than because the doctor told us to, then we might also lose out on other nutrients that are ideally found in a wholegrain for example.
They also didn’t mention whether the swaps were just low carb, or lower in calories instead. If it’s the latter then it’s not carb intake that’s a problem per se, but overall calories.
As with the bread scenario, if you’re looking for cost savings then aim to buy in bulk if possible, and doublecheck the price per item. You’d assume that 12 bars of Lindt chocolate would work out more economical than a smaller quantity if you wanted to make the chocolate-covered strawberries in the example above. However, I found eight bars of Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa Dark Chocolate for less per block of chocolate (aff link).
The show also had a segment on weight loss and fertility treatment. I haven’t written about this because I was uncomfortable with restricting carbs as the route to qualifying for fertility treatment. But then again, I’m not a doctor, so what do I know. I’ll just be over here, doing a little jig with my remote. Apparently too much time watching TV is going to kill me young or something…
The Truth About Carbs
So what to conclude from all this if you’re trying to save money and eat “healthily”?
- High carbohydrate foods give us a lot of quick energy and are great fuel to buy if we’re very active
- We can increase resistant starch a little for the benefit of our gut health and blood sugar by cooking, cooling and reheating pasta
- Freezing and toasting bread also increases resistant starch
- Wholegrain breads like rye and pumpernickel are not a very cost effective way for most of us to consume resistant starch in comparison
- Sports drinks will provide energy for exercise, but this energy might be surplus to requirements
- Swilling sugar water impacts the brain the same as swallowing a sports drink if we want to exercise more efficiently
- Diabetics especially should seek professional advice before making lifestyle changes
- Oats, berries, and eggs provide less energy from carbohydrate than a breakfast of cereal, toast, banana and juice in one sitting
The latter costs more by default because it’s a bigger breakfast anyway.
What other experts say
- Nearly all ingredients have mixed nutrients, so “starches” also usually have fibre, some simple sugars, some protein, some fat etc
- Don’t be afraid of one type of carb therefore and try to eat a wide variety of foods
- White bread is not the devil; it simply has less fibre than brown and wholegrain bread and is a quick source of energy
- If we’re not diabetic, Coeliac, allergic etc., we shouldn’t need to exclude entire food groups from our diet
- Excluding a food group doesn’t lead to weight loss if our calorie intake remains the same or increases
- “Swapping” a carb for a different ingredient is not really a swap as foods have different nutritional properties
I don’t think Xand actually referred to white carbs as the devil at any point! However, the show very much aimed at a broad audience while implying that health and weight hinge largely on our blood sugar whether we’re diabetic or not. Carbs are more complex than that (pun intended?) Such are the obstacles in making one hour television (or a single blog post…)
I recapped another show of Xand’s, How to Lose Weight Well. It’s of course chock full of value for money analysis and expert opinions on health.
Depending on how you interpret all the above, dedicated readers might prefer nutritionist and keen Instagrammer Pixie’s books with their no-nonsense approach to wellness. Her latest is The Insta-Food Diet: How Social Media Has Shaped The Way We Eat. You can also guess what to expect from The No Need to Diet Book, her follow up to The Wellness Rebel.
In case you’re kerfuzzled, Pixie’s Plates is just her recipe book and The Wellness Rebel was originally more about the theory behind nutrition. I believe the latest editions of The Wellness Rebel include the recipes now too.
If books aren’t in your spending priorities as part of your savings plan at the mo, there’s always the library, or you could see what’s available in a 30 day free trial of Kindle Unlimited. Podcast and audiobook listeners will want to investigate a free Audible trial.
What carbs have to do with our money
On the financial side, excluding carbs can really rocket our shopping bill depending on what we buy instead. If you’re swapping a 50p loaf for more protein and fat, then likely you’re spending more on meat and dairy. Both of these tend to cost far more per weight than a packet of the cheapest pasta or rice.
If you’re buying all veggies instead, then frozen vegetables can be an affordable way to consume more plants. It’s common in weight loss literature to highlight that it takes a mountain of vegetables to match the calories of steak or lasagne. But you need a large volume of veggies to fill full also, and they paint a different nutrition picture besides calories.
Making cauliflower rice to satisfy might mean getting through a whole cauliflower at each setting which isn’t very cost effective. Premade cauli rice is overpriced in the same way as preseasoned pouches of lentils or couscous. (It’s nearly always cheaper to make something yourself. Every penny helps if we’re trying to save thousands in a year).
And swapping carbs for salad means munching our way through a huge amount of lettuce leaves to feel full. This would cost far more than a slice of bread or portion of pasta. Low-carbers are also likely to “fall off the wagon” therefore, and consume carbs after all because their body wants energy.
From everything I’ve read and seen, if we don’t have any health conditions, it’s best if there’s no wagon. We can just eat everything in moderation without repeatedly consuming more calories than we need for our activity levels.
Where to find the cheapest ingredients (including carbs!)
What do you think? Have you seen this programme and did it change the way you think about carbs? Do you think you mainly spend on one food group, or have you excluded foods before in a bid to save money? What’s more important to you, saving or your health? Let me know in the comments.
I’ve included brown bread, pasta, rice, oats, potatoes and various vegetables on my 100+ Best Value Food Ingredients page if you want to know the cheapest storefronts to buy these by weight. Eggs and berries are on there too.
The list is not definitive, but I tried to include lots of common favourites. I think the bottom line is to just to eat as many different foods as possible for maximum nutrition. If we make use of cupboard staples and the freezer, this doesn’t have to be expensive. Talk to a doctor if you have lifestyle concerns.
Otherwise existing members of Amazon Prime might save on food shopping with Amazon Fresh. A 30 day free trial lets you test run the weekly deliveries (aff link). This is for you if you insist on buying brands, don’t have a discounter near you, and easily spend £40 on your essentials.
It’s also for you if you rely on deliveries usually anyway, and have used all the delivery coupon sign up offers for the major supermarkets.
They have a wider range than most supermarkets, but you can also add produce from independents for hard to find items if you don’t have that choice locally, or the travel costs are prohibitive. Their products from Morrisons are sometimes cheaper than going into Morrisons if that’s your supermarket of choice ordinarily. The deliveries are cheaper than paying annually at Tesco etc., on the basis that deliveries are same day and you can choose a one hour slot. Let me know how you get on if you try anything mentioned in this post.
Don’t forget the mailing list is your friend if you want to keep up to date with resources like this as soon as I post them.