Sunday, April 22, 2012

Eating Clean (and Drinking Clean) on a Budget, prefaced by an angry rant

Your food has to be affordable. Of course, "affordable" means different things to different people. According to Michael Pollen, we as a society spend the lowest proportion of our income on food than any in history. I laugh when people complain about how expensive "Whole Paycheck" is, when they just bought a new flat screen or car, or bought six mixed drinks for $10 each last Friday night. Yet, who am I to judge? I'm not willing to spend an outlandish sum on food. There's plenty I could sacrifice to boost my food budget, but choose not to.

Instead, I see it as a fun challenge to get creative. I've already touched on a few of these tips in earlier posts, but here's a more comprehensive list.

One quick (updated: long) rant before I begin: There are several blogs about this subject already, some of which have decent guides, but many of them lead off by telling you to "forget organic." This is baloney, unless you have a complete disregard for your planet and your body. (I will note that Sebastion Noel, whose blog I've linked to many times and really respect, does not take this misguided approach in his post on budgeting.)

Humor me for a moment, and then we'll get to the budget tips. You might even learn something. 

Grain fed beef comes from cows that were fed a mix of ingredients they were unable to digest. Ruminants (cows) evolved to digest grass. When cows eat grain (like corn), it makes them sick with a host of problems, including bacterial infections such as E. Coli. Due to an abundance of cheap corn made possible by ill-informed government subsidies, it is far more economical to raise cows in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations, or feedlots). These cows are fed a mix of grains, growth hormones and other cheap ingredients, (sometimes even parts of cows themselves), which causes the animals to gain weight much faster and produce meat that is more "marbled," i.e. fatty. This also causes grain-fed meat to be much lower in Omega 3 fatty acids. Due to the living conditions and this toxic diet, the cows become sick; they are pumped with antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to be slaughtered. That's how it works. The process is similar for pigs and chickens as well.

Not to mention the unspeakable cruelty that occurs in factory farms. (I'm not going to provide a link here. Google it if you have the stomach for it).

So let's get this straight, because I've encountered a lot of idiots on the paleo diet who think they're doing it right buying beef from Sam's Club. The paleo diet's fundamental premise is humans should consume the foods they have evolved to eat over millions of years. Yet the aforementioned bloggers are recommending you eat animals that have been raised on feed for which they are completely unadapted? It's laughable. (The paleo authorities like Cordain and Wolf, however, understand the difference and really encourage free-range meat.

Sam's Club markets grain fed beef as if it's premium: "Exceptional flavor, superior marbling." Give me a break.

The same logic applies to vegetables. Cavemen certainly didn't eat food grown on chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides. And the evidence, while still inconclusive, shows that chemically-treated, non-organic foods have lower nutritional value.

And that's just the health aspects. CAFOs and conventional agriculture are devastating to the environment. The main culprit of CAFOs is urine and feces pollution (on the other hand, the poop of free range animals actually helps fertilize the plant life on the ground naturally). Nitrogen runoff from synthetic produce fertilizers is also disruptive; the most known instance of this is in the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. I know that organic agricultural methods have their own problems, but they at least spare huge amounts of land from being bombarded with nitrogen. I could continue, but I promised myself I wouldn't use this blog as a soap box for Michael Pollen proselytizing. (Just read The Omnivore's Dilemma, it is a life-changer). Also, I'm going to do a whole post soon about reconciling the paleo diet with a sustainable lifestyle, and why I ultimately may have to refrain from paleo for environmental reasons. Stay tuned.

Isn't this post supposed to be about budget? Focus, Zack. Back to the topic.

Tips to Eat Clean on a Budget

1) Don't eat paleo. Yes, you heard me. me. Notice how my title is "eating clean," not "eating paleo," on a budget. As I stressed above, I think it's more important to eat organic, environmentally-friendly vegetables and humanely raised animals than it is to keep your food groups strictly paleo.

Do I break my own rules? Sometimes. For some essential but expensive foods, like blueberries, I'll bite the bullet when organic is too pricey.

In my next post, I will detail which tenets of paleo really ought to be followed and which can be blurred a bit, but for now, just know whole, unprocessed foods are the foundation of agreement from experts across the nutrition spectrum. Milk isn't great for my particular gastrointesinal tract, and it's really meant only for baby cows, but it can be an adequate nutrition source for people who have financial constraints. Grains too. If you can tolerate them, grains from non-gluten whole food sources (think rice, quinoa and steel cut oats) provide carbs much more cheaply than vegetables. Keep diverse fruits and veggies in the mix for their nutrient value, but you can supplement with grains. Lastly, I firmly believe that complementing your meat intake with legumes, provided they are prepared properly, is fine if you can't afford enough quality meat to meet your protein requirements. Stay away from soy, though, which is very high in estrogen and other problem-causing antinutrients.

2) Seize the opportunities at sales. After about a month on my new diet, I settled into a routine of knowing what, and how much, I needed for each week. So when almonds, fish (canned and frozen), or other go on sale, I capitalize. Then I have almonds for the next month. Sunflower's fish is generally previously frozen. If they're having a sale, I ask the guy to grab fillets from their back freezer, so I don't give the fish a chance to defrost. Frozen grass-fed beef at Keller's is good too. Right now, I have 4 lbs of salmon, 2 lbs of shrimp, 2 lbs of cod, and 3 lbs of ground beef in my freezer, all bought for more than 50% off.

For perishable items like fruits and veggies, sale cycles generally encourage you to buy seasonally and also create a nice diversity to what you buy. Compare fresh fruits and veggies to their frozen counterparts; one might be cheaper than the other based on the season.

3) Figure out which grocery store has what cheapest. Sunflower is my go-to for most produce and seafood. But Sunflower's selection of organic fruits and veggies is more limited than Whole Foods, so I get some specific items at the latter. Also, Whole Foods' berries are often cheaper than Sunflower, and anything of the 365 brand is usually cheaper too. I'm blessed to have these two grocery stores very close to me. If it's possible, do a two-grocery run once per week. It's a bit more work but it saves a lot of money.

4) Learn to love affordable animal protein. As I discussed previously, canned fish is amazing. You can get nearly a pound of wild caught salmon for $3 at Trader Joe's. TJ also has no-salt-added varieties. You can't beat that.

Organ meats fall into this category too, as I've stated in a previous post. Organs used to be considered a delicacy, and many hunter gatherer societies traditionally prefer organs over muscle meat. These days, it's a matter of supply and demand. You can capitalize on modern American society's taste for steak, and grab organ meats at bottom dollar prices. It's definitely an acquired taste, but I've been refining a fantastic chopped liver recipe and I'm starting to really enjoy it.

When you do choose muscle meat, consider the cheaper cuts. They're usually less tender, but they come out great in stews. For this reason, I'm getting ready to purchase a pressure cooker. This way, I'll be able to make delicious stews and soups in less time. Crock pots are good as well, but I've read that pressure cookers do a better job containing nutrients during cooking. And even at higher temperatures than boiling, pressure cookers don't have the potential to produce carcinogens the way high-heat methods like grilling do.

Lastly, eggs are some of the best protein bang for your buck. Even the roam-free variety is only $4 per dozen. Now, there are some claims that eggs in large amounts could endanger your health, while there are other claims that eggs are perfectly fine. I've spoken to a couple doctors who say eggs are ok, as long as you're eating plenty of vegetables. I tend to hedge my bet, eating two eggs per day rather than the five or six or even 10 that some paleo dieters consume.

 5) Get rotisserie chickens at Whole Foods. This warrants its own category, because they're so convenient and are such a good value. I go through about two chickens per week, and have completely replaced cold cuts. I try to buy on Wednesdays, when they're on sale for $2 off.

6) Cut your alcohol budget in half. In focusing so much effort on healthier eating, it made sense for me to reduce my alcohol consumption. I did it for health reasons, but it's also a financial expense that I can "sacrifice" in the name of my food budget. I cut my alcohol budget from about $100 to $50 per month and have barely noticed. I still go out just as much, I just don't give into the pressure to have a drink in my hand at all times when I'm at a bar or club. By the way, the general recommendations I've seen for paleo-friendly alcohol is tequila (from agave, unlike other liquors that are derived from grains and other starches), and red wine. Avoiding beer has worked well for me. The most common paleo drink popularized by Robb Wolf is the NorCal Margarita. 

Having settled into a grocery store routine for my new diet style, I'm spending about the same amount as before I started. Maybe 10% or 20% more. It's a small price to pay for the huge increase in clean fuel that I'm now providing for myself.

A great way to track your spending, on alcohol, food, and everything else is It links to your credit cards, so automatically categorizes your spending with only minimal oversight needed. It's a great tool and it's free. They aggregate your data and sell it to companies, which some people might find creepy, but your anonymity is protected.

Thanks for reading! I'm moving next weekend so it may be a bit of time before my next post, but I promise it will be worth the wait! 

UPDATE ON THE INTERMITTENT FASTING: I recently finished a free and extremely informative ebook by Dr. John Berardi on intermittent fasting, and I continue to research paleo mass gain methods. I'm going to do this experiment right. I ordered a body fat caliper, I've been getting on the scale every day to get a baseline for my weight, measuring my biceps, before and after photos...all the Jersey Shore stuff I wish I had done before starting the strict 30 days of paleo. I have lost approximately ten pounds on paleo (while trying desperately not to lose weight...a note for my readers looking to slim down!). I want to gain it back and then some, to the tune of 15 pounds, while maintaining a low body fat percentage. I plan on beginning the experiment with increasing my caloric intake through carbs from rice, lentils and quinoa (the lesser of evils in the Paleo world), then fasting one day per week, and finally easing into a leangains protocol. It's gonna be a rocking good time!

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