Where Can I Find Low-Cost Sources of Protein and Fat?

As we continue to tilt our diets away from carbs and more towards protein- and fat-based calories, we're finding a problem: if you're not careful, a low-carb diet can cost a lot more money.

It's not all bad news. Remember the primary advantage of proteins and fats over carbs: they offer far more satiety. All else equal, you get a much longer-acting feeling of fullness from a calorie of protein or fat than you get out of a calorie of carbs.

This distinction is obvious to anyone who's compared the experience of eating a big bowl of cereal for breakfast versus eating, say, two eggs fried in olive oil. The calorie content of these two breakfasts is about the same, but the eggs have a far greater satiety factor. You'll feel full for hours on a couple of eggs, while a bowl of cereal puts you on a hunger rollercoaster... making you ravenous long before lunchtime.

In other words, protein- and fat-based meals offer us a win-win: we feel fuller, and thus eat less. This is one of the primary reasons people find it easier to lose weight when they cut back on carbs.

Another thing to think about: If it takes more carbs to get the same sensation of fullness, then this implies that a diet rich in carbs is very likely a diet with many more calories than you need. Put simply, if you eat a lot of carbs, it's a lot easier to eat more... and therefore spend more. So, the fact that you get a lot more satiety out of proteins and fats than carbs helps alleviate the cost issue.

Okay, let's get to the list. Here are the primary sources of the most cost-effective proteins and fats that we rely on here at Casual Kitchen:

Eggs: my primary staple food for a high-satiety, long lasting breakfast. But don't think of eggs just as a breakfast food! You can enjoy them in lunch/dinner recipes too, like Shaksouka or a delicious Frittata.

* Ground meats, particularly higher-fat ground meats (80/20 beef is superior, both in cost and flavor, to 90/10 beef, for example)
* Whole chicken (see our Hilariously Easy Whole Chicken Soup)
* Chicken, bulk dark meat (drumsticks, thighs, etc.)
* Pork joints: pork shoulder/pork butt (perfect for a delicious and easy Pernil)
* Sausage (avoid sausages flavored with a lot of sugar or HFCS for obvious reasons)

A useful savings heuristic with meats: avoid the leanest meat cuts like the priciest cuts of beef for example. Contrary to dietary advice from decades ago, lean meats aren't "better" for you, and in my opinion they don't taste better either. They sure do cost a lot more though! A textbook example here is the price differential between so-called "healthier" 90/10 ground beef and 80/20 ground beef, or the price differential between a filet mignon cut and, say, a juicier, more delicious T-bone steak cut.

One more quick thought on meats: occasionally there will be "supply shocks" to specific meats. For example, over the past few years there has been enormous excess supply of lobster worldwide, driving prices down to the point where, over the past year or two, even casual-themed chain restaurants are rolling out things like lobster ravioli and other lobster dishes. I'm not suggesting lobster as a protein source per se here (it's delicious but not nearly as cost-effective as other protein sources), I merely bring it up as an example of how prices can fluctuate widely for various meats--offering savings opportunities for the open-minded consumer.

* lentils
* red lentils
* mung beans
* canned and dried (store-brand) beans

It should be no surprise to see Casual Kitchen singing the praises of legumes! We love to live on lentils. One tremendous savings hint: seek out ethnic grocery stores in your community for low-cost bulk legumes. In a local Indian grocery store near us, for example, we've found astonishingly good prices on bulk red lentils and bulk mung beans. Sadly, in the standard American supermarket, foods like mung beans or even red lentils are thought of as "aspirational"... and priced accordingly. In an Indian grocery store, they're just "food"... and priced far more reasonably.

Brown rice: Yes, brown rice costs more than white rice, but it also has a better ratio of carbs/protein/fat per unit of food. You can lower your costs here by buying in bulk, buying the store brand, or, again, seeking out deals at ethnic grocery stores in your community.

* Peanuts
* Peanut butter (watch out for and avoid HFCS- or sugar-laden peanut butters. Blech!)

This is a tough category, simply because many types of nuts are crazy expensive and/or sold as aspirational products. Peanuts, however, are seen by the grocery industry as a low-end commodity food and thus priced accordingly. We buy only store-brand unsalted peanuts and store-brand unsweetened peanut butter.

Canned tuna in oil: remember to field-test the store brand! Remember: it's likely from the same third party food producer as the branded tuna.

Basic oils: on many mornings, I consume 1-2 teaspoons of olive or canola oil in addition to 2-3 eggs (also fried in oil). This quick, satiety-boosting dietary tweak helps me stay feeling full from early in the morning until well past noon.

* Olive oil
* Canola oil

You can safely skip the idea of buying any of today's various trendy oils: coconut, avocado, pumpkin seed oil, etc. Like red lentils or many types of nuts, these are aspirational products in the eyes of grocery store retailers, and--no surprise--they're also priced accordingly. Don't buy. Generally, we buy one or two large jugs of commodity olive or canola oil, and only buy when on a significant sale (as in half-off or buy one/get one free). We keep an inventory in our pantry, which allows us to wait until the grocery store meets our price, not the other way around.

Readers, now it's your turn! What low-costs protein and fat-based foods would you add? What did I miss?

Read Next: The Consumer Must Be Protected At All Times

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at Amazon.com via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.


Marcia said...

Yes, this is something that I've been dealing with over the last couple of years.
- In 2014 I made a big attempt to lose the 2nd baby weight. It worked! I focused on eating what I needed to lose the weight, and not on money. Thus, our grocery bill for the year was $10,600.

- In 2015 I went "eek!" so I tried to cut our bill. It worked! By shopping at many many stores, and prepping a lot more veggies, I cut our bill to $5700.

Along the way I have been experimenting with diet.
- The "weight loss" diet is definitely lower carb and higher protein. For me, that's 2 servings of carbs per day (1/2 cup each). So, one cup total of: rice, beans, potatoes (cheap calories), or the equivalent in bread.

- In 2016 our bills have gone up because I started getting a produce delivery (our CSA is temporarily closed because of the drought). But also, I found myself gaining a bit of weight at the beginning of this year (~5 pounds), in part stress but also in part due to eating more carbs (which are cheaper).

So I've been experimenting with carb/ fat/ protein ratios. I eat 4 servings of protein a day, and they tend to be: whey protein powder, eggs, cottage cheese, meat, canned tuna or salmon, fish, etc. None of these are particularly cheap (except for the eggs maybe).

I seem to be able to maintain weight loss by subbing one of the servings with 1/2 cup of beans. (So this means I'm really getting 3 servings of carbs a day, because beans read more like a carb to the body.)

That still leaves 3 servings of higher priced protein. In addition to the higher prices, there is the environmental concerns about meat and meat production. (And of course, the whole health concerns, Mediterranean diet and all that.)

So now I'm experimenting a bit more with nuts and other fats. Not always cheaper, but plant based in any event. So if I can eat nuts, or peanut butter, or hummus (higher fat vegetarian food) and it will satiate me like the equivalent calories of chicken, then it's a bonus. Fats, in general, are cheaper per calorie. (120 cal of olive oil is about 13 cents. 120 cal of chicken breast is about 4 oz, or $0.50 on bargain sale).

Still experimenting and figuring it out, all while trying to keep my weight in check. It's a struggle. I have to accept that our grocery bill is going up this year. The produce box, the cutting of carbs, and the two growing boys...

FYI I love coconut oil. It makes my stir fry very very yummy.

Daniel said...

Thank you for all your input Marcia! That's a great comment.

One question: How do you think about fat calories in all this? For example: rather than replacing carb-based calories with protein-based calories, why not replace some of those incremental calories with calories from fat? I'm thinking that ought to save money *and* help with weight loss.


Marcia said...

Yeah, that's really what I was going for with the comment about olive oil vs. chicken (13 cents vs 50 cents). And the comment about peanut butter.

Rather than make my four proteins straight up lean protein, I'm experimenting with higher fat foods that may have protein (or may not. I mean, sometimes it's straight up avocado!)

So instead of protein-veg snack of cottage cheese and veggies, I may have that peanut-lime dip and veggies.