the cost of going low carb

  • Analysis of the USDA Cost of Food at Home database shows that fat is the cheapest macronutrient.
  • Protein is the most expensive macronutrient, however a reduced carbohydrate diet does not necessarily require an increase in protein.
  • Reducing the amount of carbohydrate and increasing the amount of fat in your diet is the most effective way to reduce your grocery bill.

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One of the common concerns about eating differently from the norm is that it will be more expensive.

Apparently one of the reasons for the relatively low Recommended Daily Intake for protein of 0.8g/kg is that many people can’t afford to eat more protein. [1]  One of the common criticisms of Paleo or the Banting Diet (LCHF) is that it will be too expensive due to the extra protein. [2]

To see if these concerns were valid I thought it would be interesting to see what the data has can tell us about the relative cost the three macronutrients, protein, carbohydrate and fat.

protein

The chart below shows the cost per calorie versus the percentage of protein in the thousand or so foods in the USDA Cost of Food at Home database. [3]

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Protein is indeed the most expensive of the three macronutrients.  As you move to the right in the chart you can see that your weekly grocery bill will increase.

Average intake of both protein and fat in the United States decreased between 1971 and 2004, with an overall increase in carbohydrate. [4]

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While from a nutritional point of view there area lot of good reasons for people to eat higher levels of protein, a low carbohydrate diet is not necessarily high in protein.

People aiming for therapeutic ketosis may aim for lower amounts of protein to minimise insulin.

Tim Noakes’ Banting diet recommends that people get between 20 and 30% of their calories from protein.  He says that those with diabetes and / or insulin resistance issues should aim for the lower end of this range, while people who are active and healthy can aim for higher amounts.  [5]

Practically it is difficult to eat much more than 30% to 35% protein from real foods.

The table below shows the relative change in cost if we were to increase our protein from current average levels back to 1970s levels, or to moderate levels such as the Mediterranean diet or even the higher protein Atkins approach.

scenario % protein cost ($/kcal) change
2004 average 14.7% 4.67
1970 average 16.9% 4.83 +3%
Mediterranean 20% 5.06 +8%
Atkins 30% 5.79 +24%

As shown in the table below, the most expensive high protein foods tend to be seafood.  For reference, the average cost of food across the more than one thousand foods in the database is $5.37/kcal.

food cost ($/kcal)
crayfish 26
spinach 26
crab 24
spirulina 23
lobster 22
scallops 17
clam 16
haddock 16
cod 15

While protein can be expensive there are some low cost high protein options available.

food cost ($/kcal)
whole egg 1.70
ground turkey 2.13
beef liver 2.81
chicken heart 2.94
cottage cheese 3.58
pork 3.59
chicken liver 3.81
ham 4.10

If you are willing to try organ meats you might get them even cheaper as they are often discarded.   The cheaper organ meats also typically have a much higher nutrient density than the more popular muscle meats or even fruits or vegetables.

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carbohydrates

You often hear the term ‘cheap carbohydrates’, but does this mean that a diet of processed grains and sugars is the most economical way to fill your shopping trolley?

While sugar and corn starch are very cheap food ingredients per calorie, the analysis of the data suggest that a higher carbohydrate diet is actually more expensive overall.

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The cheaper high high carbohydrate foods tend to be processed and calorie dense.   While the most expensive high carbohydrate foods tend to be natural foods that have a much lower calorie density. The table below shows that someone switching from a typical western diet to a reduced carbohydrate diet could make some significant savings.

scenario % carbohydrate cost ($/kcal) change
2004 average 51% 5.57
1970 average 45% 5.37 -4%
low carb 30% 4.77 -14%
ketogenic 5% 3.80 -32%

fat

So if increasing the proportion of protein and carbohydrate both increase the cost of our food bill then what makes it cheaper?  Yes it’s the other macronutrient, fat.

Increasing the proportion of fat in your diet while decreasing the carbohydrates will make your meals tastier, gentler on your blood glucose and cheaper.  Not to mention the fact that people typically spontaneously consume less calories when they consume less carbohydrates.

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You may pay a premium for coconut oil, butter or olive oil relative to corn oil which is the cheapest food ingredient, however these fats are still much cheaper than the other macronutrients.

food cost ($/kcal)
corn oil 0.20
coconut oil 0.31
chicken fat 0.86
butter 1.10
bacon fat 1.12
coconut milk 1.15
cream cheese 1.76
sesame oil 2.00
cream 2.81
olive oil 2.81

It appears that the it’s the very cheapest ingredients that are so prevalent in processed foods – sugar, corn starch, corn oil, high fructose corn syrup.  Regardless of cost you’re always going to have to make a value judgement on the nutritional value of your food.

summary

Increasing the protein content of your diet will increase your grocery bill marginally.

While higher levels of protein may be ideal for people who are healthy and active, LCHF is not necessarily high protein, particularly for those who struggle to regulate their blood glucose levels.

The LCHF approach, with its combination of moderate protein, lower carbohydrates and high fat provides an optimal solution with respect to blood glucose management, nutrition and cost.

references

[1] https://www.facebook.com/physiquescienceradio/posts/378943502302499

[2] http://talkfeed.co.za/lchf-diet-on-a-budget/

[3] http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/USDAFoodPlansCostofFood

[4] http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9146789&fileId=S1368980012005423

[5] http://www.biznews.com/health/2015/01/19/complete-idiots-guide-tim-noakes-diet-banting-lchf/

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7 thoughts on “the cost of going low carb”

  1. Apples vs oranges and all that.

    You can live like a keto king on ~$2-4 a day with the right choices – beef/lamb/fish offcuts plus eggs and butter/cream/cheese is 90% of what you’ll ever need for endless variety of decadent meals.

    Even within the same supermarket you’ll find different parts of the same animal varying 000’s of % in price. Folk who moan about the price of meat either don’t know how to acquire it – or are in a place too inconvenient.

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  2. I just got 5 lbs. of chicken skins for free–all I had to do was ask my farmer’s market vendor. He said he usually composts the skins, and was happy to save them from his next “chicken harvest”, and so he did. I’m having the time of my life with chicken skin nachos, chicken skin tortillas, chicken skin-wrapped Rangoon (not necessarily made with crab), and chicken skin-wrapped hot dogs. The beauty in all this chicken skin is that IT DOESN’T RAISE HUBBY’S BLOOD SUGAR A SINGLE POINT!

    Interested in recipes? Just Google chicken skin nachos, chips,etc.

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  3. Now for what I was REALLY going to post–this article is exactly what has been circulating around various keto sites (there’s a lively discussion about it buried over at Fluffy Chix Cook in the comments area). I keep mentioning this same stuff you mentioned above every time someone else whines about the cost of going LC or keto–I take the “Food Stamp Challenge” approach to it.

    I think I may have won the food stamp challenge handily back in 2013 with my posted reply to their invitation (I also replied the same stuff back in 2011), and then asked them to stop inviting me, as it was no longer a challenge. I listed the same foods you did above, and I wrote extensive blog posts about the cost of protein, as well as how to shop for food using cost-per-unit (this was back in 2005-2012).

    Today, when bloggers discuss lowering their food expenses, they’ll mention buying online, using coupons, group buying, or go so far as to list certain recipes, but no actual FOOD recommendations like you just did. What if you don’t have a computer or a credit card to shop online? What if there ARE no coupons for the things you want to eat (like I put up with)? What if here IS no group of people to join up with and make group purchases–THEN what do you do?

    The Ruled.Me site once did a post on th cost per serving of his recipes, breaking down the actual cost of each ingredient that went into his recipes, showing just how little it costs to make a casserole, a batch of tortillas, a dessert, etc. Eating HIS stuff costs much less than a trip through Mickey D’s. (http://www.ruled.me/keto-diet-cost-breakdowns-of-popular-recipes/)

    This is how far we’ve wandered away from true home economics–when man lives by shelf price alone, and has absolutely NO creativity when it comes to the kitchen.

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    1. Oh, and I forgot to add this–we went carb-free about a couple of months ago, and I HAVE NEVER SAVED SO MUCH GROCERY MONEY!! Lots of fat, moderate meat, some dairy and eggs, plenty of water, and ended up wiping out Dawn Phenomenon while we were at it. The lower you go with the carbs, the more you save.

      My doctor’s having conniptions about our LDL, but I keep telling her to calm down and wait until the weight is lost. I know this is going to be like talking to a brick wall, but this is all I can do until we finally find a doctor who will play ball and not just shove us a bottle of statins.

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