“Our food should be our medicine and our medicine should be our food.”– Hippocrates
“No way – eating that way (Keto) costs too much! I can’t afford to eat that way.” – one of the many ‘reasons why’ someone won’t try out low carb / keto. I think it’s time to clear the air about the expenses related to the keto diet: it’s not all lobster and grass-fed ribeyes (though there are definitely days I treat myself to an indulgence like that, they are few and far between). As with most things, social media has taken a simple concept of eating whole, unprocessed foods and distorting it to make ‘keto’ become a larger-than-life affair of piles of bacon, salmon, avocados and ribeye steaks. I admit, I take part in the fun sometimes… because it is fun to make a literal food pyramid!
The point here is not to scare people away… it’s to address the concern head on and talk about ways to help make keto (like any other whole food diet) affordable. For me, it’s way simpler than organic this, pasture-raised grass-fed that… it’s simple: cut process carbs out and increase intake of whole food proteins & fats . Let’s not hide from the fact there are some costs associated with a change like that.
I’d like this “Cost of Keto” series to review these objections, and I’ll share my personal experience addressing them. I confess to feeling a bit overwhelmed when I first started (buying a bunch of avocados at the upscale supermarket at 4 bucks each is not a good move) however, when you are new to keto it’s hard to know what’s a bargain and what’s overpriced.
I’m pleased to report I’m not bankrupt (yet!). There’s an adjustment phase and some upfront costs – sure, but that’s no different from any other lifestyle change. It’s been about striking a new balance and rethinking how to value my health and nutrition.
Objection: Keto Costs Too Much $$$
There are those who say eating keto is expensive. Others argue (myself included) that keto ends up costing less than before because they simply consume less food and remain satisfied for longer.
I have been on both sides of this argument, and I frequently have this question come up when discussing the long term sustainability of a low carb / ketogenic diet. Look, if you are filling your cart with instant noodles, pop tarts, cereal, frozen meals and other standard american junk, your grocery bill will be smaller than if you were buying fresh meat and produce. There’s no comparison… “Big Food” with its industrial processed flours, oils, and cheap sweeteners to help their nutrient-void foods trick your brain in to thinking their food ‘tastes amazing’ have economies of scale on their side.
So if eating from boxes is the way you choose to eat, that’s your call. I would suggest there are serious things to evaluate there, though. Perhaps think about whether the fuel you are putting in your body could be a cause of being overweight, tired, moody etc all the time.
Now, if you aren’t eating out of boxes all the time, the so-called cost of eating keto is not all that different than what you likely currently experience. I went from a ‘healthy whole food’ high carb / moderate protein / low carb diet to the keto diet and today see no significant difference in my grocery bill at all. In fact it has decreased slightly as I’ve been incorporating fasting and simply require less volume of food when I’m getting quality nutrition.
How Much $$$ is Your Health Worth?
Whenever I need to describe the difference between the cost of a bag of flour vs a beef roast, and get in to the nutritional benefits of both (in case you are wondering, the score on that scale is: zero benefits for flour, all benefits for beef )… it reveals a fundamental flaw we’ve all been sold our whole lives. We don’t believe diet / nutrition really impacts health. It’s all about ‘calories in and calories out’… it shouldn’t matter what we eat, just that we burn what we put in. Well, wake up, it doesn’t work that way guys, if it did we wouldn’t have the obesity epidemic.
Have a look at this study showing the average American male in 2015 to 2016 aged 20-39 has a waist of 38.5 inches. Average! And… if you look at the the 40-59 year-old male bracket the waist average expands further to 40.7 inches. This is such a sad state of affairs, we see how far the ‘average’ bar (or belt) has shifted. To be considered better than average based on this data, the average male would still be classified very overweight or obese! So if we are so good at spending our money and don’t want to go keto because it costs too much… where the heck is it all currently going?
Let’s consider two options:
A) High Quality Nutrition as prevention vs B) Carbs now, Healthcare bills later. In A) we consume foods like Steak, Salmon and broccoli topped with butter …for a long, healthy life. In B) we consume cheap carbs like pasta, rice, flour, sugar and pay for insulin & dialysis later. Seems like we could use a lesson in prioritization.
Most of us don’t really understand that carbs are not necessary, and in fact when ultra-processed carbs are consumed in excess, we see the resulting obesity and type 2 diabetes at unprecedented levels.
Next, we are going to break down the costs I experienced switching to keto, and delve in to the re-framing I did to view my health’s worth as something I can control simply by considering quality of food as the quality of fuel for my body. I’ve already written about my physical transformation going keto, so this post is about the mental aspect: why I consider keto an investment in myself.
Get More Nutrition per Dollar (YMMV)
Right off the bat I’ll say this: you can – (and I have) – make low carb / keto work on a budget. What I will caution you on is this: if you aren’t careful, you could stumble in to a big shock on your first grocery run.
When trying keto at first, I found myself making purchases I wouldn’t ever have thought I would (wait – buying fresh salmon steaks chopped right in front of me from the seafood counter? – no way, I want battered frozen fish sticks please). I had to get some new staples like quality butter, coconut and olive oil. I also got excited, and bought a little extra bacon. And wow those salmon steaks sure look great! Etc etc… so I went overboard, and ignored my inner budget-savvy brain. No big deal, I just wish I was more present in the moment when shopping, to reduce the negative impact you may be unprepared. Thanks to some enthusiastic shopping, you may wind up with a slightly larger than normal grocery bill.
Until I found my groove and re-learned how to shop, things were a little surprising on my grocery bill. As I loaded up on fresh produce, meat, fish and dairy items, I wasn’t sure what was a good price or not… I had to gain some experience, and there is a learning curve + cost associated with that, no doubt.
Quick aside here on something I found I really saved on. Are you someone who spends a good amount of cash per week eating out for lunch? Consider what you are paying for at the sub shop, the pizza joint, and the sushi place. It’s mostly refined flour and sugar, or a plate of rice designed to make you crave more and come back for more at the drive-thru on the way home. Veal sandwiches were an addiction, pizza slices masquerade with veggies & whole grain crust looked healthy. How much money did I waste, and how many empty carbs was I ingesting? It makes me angry when I think of what a few small changes could have made for me all those years ago. Upping your nutrition at these meals will limit your cravings, and you’ll find yourself not even considering that drive-thru at lunch or on the way home.
Adventure to the Uncharted Aisles!
I never thought I’d spend so much time browsing the meat / seafood counters… but now, it feels like home! And the middle of the supermarket – laden with carby, pre-packaged sugar-infused items are left to memories of sadder times long gone by.
I can say I’m proud of what my grocery bill looks like. I line up my cart at the checkout line and it’s near bursting with meats, cheeses, dairy and fresh produce (and think of all the great new recipes you’ll be trying). I’ve left behind the vague, uncertain shamefulness I felt plopping 3 family size bags of chips next to 2 cases of soda, followed by a stack of the frozen pizzas and breaded chicken tenders that were on sale in the flyer.
Something else cool I noticed? There are these transcendent moments where a knowing ‘nod’ is exchanged between you and a clearly “fellow ketonian” in line with you. We have both stocked up on the avocado, beef roasts or salmon steak sales. Indeed, there is a low carb club. And we actually get to talk about low carb club.
Look at how great these staples look! Wouldn’t you love to stock your fridge with all these fantastic ingredients & be proud of the nourishment you are bringing home? Plus, look at the prices… these items are cheaper than their high-carb frozen meals by half and pack way more nutrition in. Just add some oil / salt and toss in the oven at 400 degrees … in the time it takes to open a package and microwave each of your family’s individual meals, your fully prepped meal is ready to eat – plus you’ll have leftovers! It just takes some small changes to your habits and you can make this your new routine! (Pro Tip: here in Toronto, the Asian Markets have got the best deals on fresh produce and meat!)
I learned the new price points of my favourite proteins, and when to “pull the trigger” buying them in bulk (club packs / larger cuts of meat are usually worth it despite what at first seems like a large initial investment). What’s amazing is – I now find my grocery bill is not much different than what it used to be pre-keto. I’ve learned alot and am still learning, but I can also say it was pretty exhilarating to figure it all out.
Example? OK Instead of browsing the packaged meats or frozen fish sticks and picking the cheapest sale price, I now routinely stop by the meat or seafood counter, and speaking with the butcher / fishmonger to see what looked really good today. These guys are passionate about their trade and love to talk to interested customers – so use that to your advantage, learn something, and get yourself great quality cut of beef or fish! After a while I found myself getting that ‘rush’ I used to feel walking up to a Toys ‘R’ Us as a kid when I get close to the deli counter and saw no lineup! A different world I would never have even entered if not for keto. And I feel great spending that money because I’m nourishing myself and family with quality, fresh foods to keep us all healthy.
So yes – when I began keto, shopping for groceries felt a bit more expensive. I know why… but many don’t realize how little they value the food they put in to their own bodies. Foods are commodities to be purchased at the lowest possible price, right? Wrong. You should be paying for quality, nutritious food because that is your body’s fuel. And it’s your one and only body.
Getting Rid of Old Pantry Staples
OK so you go low carb… that means you kind of need to donate those 99 cent pasta boxes and 50 cent canned soups you were so happy to stock up on. The frozen pizzas, the breaded chicken nuggets, all those ‘convenience foods’ are no longer really an option. Yeah – don’t believe me? Check the box! Those all had tons of carbs in them, and are terrible for you.
Don’t dance around what needs to happen – Bite the Bullet and Do It… It’s time to donate it all to the local food bank. Sorry, they aren’t viable options now that you are out of the matrix, so don’t even consider them food. And don’t keep them for a rainy day. Or guests. Get them out of your house, you will feel way better and not have any temptation – especially during the first few weeks of transition.
Regrettably, this means you need to say bye-bye to any “savings” you thought you had made in stockpiling your nuclear fallout shelter. These things will just keep you half-committed. Let it go, this is definitely an ‘initial cost’ that can’t be ignored.
Looking back, I was never satisfied, even though my grocery bill was always ‘light’. I’m here to say you need to shift your mindset. Food shouldn’t be treated as as commodity. It fuels you. Heals you. Be proud of your cart!
Invest in Your Health.
How much do you spend on your monthly cell phone? Gas or transit to get you around? Rent / mortgage? Car payment? You see these as fixed costs, necessary to live life.
So why do we (I used to be part of this club!) try so hard to save every penny at the grocery store? I was the guy who if there wasn’t an item promoted on the supermarket flyer would not even consider purchasing it unless absolutely necessary.
I’m not arguing that you need to throw your food budget out the window… It just might need recalibrating to include the true cost of whole natural foods. The cheap stuff I was buying, when I look at the ingredients, makes sense it was so cheap! Who would actually pay good money for highly processed industrial oils, powders, sawdust and sugar? Nobody!
Cost-Friendly Keto Substitutions!
What we may be attributing the “cost of going keto” to is actually the cost of switching off of industrial food-like substances. Keto means enjoying whole, unprocessed natural foods. These foods have always been more expensive that ultra-refined flour- and grain-based sugar-infused nutrient-void garbage we’ve been consuming most of our lives. But these are also super satisfying… so the ‘after dinner snack’ routine is gone from my life.
I suggest try “re-framing” or “re-categorizing” what you have been eating… Is it closer to a natural food or something totally factory-manufactured? Not sure, then try this litmus test: Is it in a box, packaged and individually wrapped? With few exceptions try to avoid those items!
So yes, be prepared! Buying fresh whole foods like…
- Olive oil
- Fresh produce
- Dark Chocolate (my faves: Godiva / Leonidas (>85%); and Lindt dark (>85%
… Will be more expensive than buying (+ I suggest you substitute in these alternatives!)
- Pasta / Mac & Cheese (convenient low carb alternative for noodles)
- Bread (keto / low carb bread or low carb wraps instead,) I also like using Romaine leaves)
- Chips (swap out for my go-to alternative: Pork Rinds)
- Frozen Processed Meat (quality jerky like Jack Link’s or Stryve Biltong )
- Frozen pizzas (try these pre-made crusts and top as you like!)
CandyGranola Bars (for transition, a treat = Quest Protein Bars or Love Good Fat Bars. )
- Sweet Condiments (Sweeten via low-carb Syrups , Stevia or check out the Primal Kitchen line)
Upgrade Your (diet) Plan
Consider keto the Premium fuel. The extended warranty. The VIP Superstar package all expense paid trip. In life there are very few things I could justify spending the “additional” money on for an upgrade. But the health of my only body? Yeah let’s go all in on that.
For example, I never had vehicle I could justify putting the “gold” level gas into. I wanted to get a full tank as cheaply as possible, spending the minimum to get me from point A to B. I realize now that I was treating my body like my old 2005 Mazda3 (RIP). Just keep running it on minimum until it finally died.
Woah! Hold on!! Is this how I want to fuel my body? My one and only in life?! If i damage it irreversibly, there’s nothing I can do: no trade-ins, no calling an Uber…
Further, by feeding myself with crappy processed carbs, what type of performance did I expect to get from it? And now that I’ve upgrade the fuel source, why is it even a surprise that my body performs like a Ferrari now by comparison?!
Framing nutrition as the primary investment you control in your health, performance and longevity really puts the cost of a few extra dollars / week in perspective;particularly when you account for all the other places in life you have justified spending those resources ahead of your nutrition
Finish Him! Frugality.
I was raised to be very frugal. in many ways, this attribute has saved me hundreds even thousands of dollars in life. However, in some ways it has inhibited me from adopting a whole foods diet.
For example, I didn’t want to spend my hard earned money on a cell phone plan, so through university I owned a pager and a cell phone card ($5 / month vs 30$ / month). I still to this dayget great pleasure reading pronto flyers just to see the savings – I’m not even in the market for a new backyard shed BUT JUST LOOK AT HOW CHEAP THIS ONE IS NOW!
In that case despite the occasional inconvenience, my frugal nature (ok I’ll say it mycheapskated-ness)
saved me wasting money. I’m always bargain-hunting. And I also want to show you how you don’t need to lose that budget-mindedness going keto. Just get creative…
Time for Good News: Getting Practical
Here are just my latest ways of incorporating bulk cooking (ie: savings!) to have convenient ‘grab and go’ options as you go Keto! Follow me on Instagram, join my Facebook page and follow me on twitter for plenty more practical ideas.
Delicious, convenient things I always like to have on-hand include:
- Hard Boiled Eggs – do ’em a dozen at a time! Handy for a snack, add to salads, or make them the star of the party deviled
- Slow cooked & shredded chicken – add to salads, or add mayo for quick chicken salad)
- Club pack of ground beef –add some cheese, salsa = cheesesteak in a bowl!
- Zoodle Lasagna – (use that prepped beef in your sauce!)
- Leftover Protein – Always cook extra, and repurpose as salad toppers, or wrap up in lettuce / low carb tortilla + sour cream for fajita night.
- Deli meats & cheeses – quick charcuterie platter or meat roll-ups
…And More Good News!
So look, it’s not all bad news. I didn’t need to give up the inner deal-hunter… but I sure had to get creative and find some new opportunities to save!
- finding marked-down packs of steaks you can bbq that same day and use leftovers for a few days…
- Loading up on a great sale on minced beef in bulk to do some meal prepping…
- Getting excited about a supermarket flyer with sales on avocados, salmon, and roasts instead of 99c pasta & sauce week
… These are opportunities that scratch my “savings” itch nowadays. The above and many other tricks are shared across low carb / keto communities and after a few months you find what works for you and you adapt! I get the same dopamine hit doing the above money-saving activities that I used to get seeing that chicken tenders were on sale, or that a whole freezer chest of pizzas at half price!
Spend it Now, or Spend it later
Money saved on food now might seem like you are getting ahead. I’m here to say that if it’s costing you your health, something that is literally priceless, you are fooling yourself. Not even to mention the cost of becoming sick in your mid-thirties to forties… but let’s just think about the opportunity cost. The great book by Ivor Cummins and Jeff Gerber “Eat Rich, Live Long” puts this theme succinctly in its title.
Are you even going to be healthy enough to enjoy any of that money you are purportedly saving (I think I’ve debunked much of the alleged cost savings of the Standard American Diet in this post)?
Let’s return to our car analogy – nobody questions the need to put in some ‘preventive maintenance‘ on your vehicle if you expect it to run 10 or more years. Owning a vehicle has some innate costs like changing oil, replacing brakes, rotating tires, checking suspension etc. If you elect not to spend that money keeping your vehicle well-maintained, there is nobody on the planet who would be surprised if the car only made it 4-5 years instead of 10. Your machinery would get gummed up, and break down much sooner than planned.
So why do we allow ourselves to put off taking care of our health and nutrition, our one-and-only bodies, in the same way? What’s more worthy your investment than that? After all, anybody can get a replacement vehicle (or take an alternative like bus / bike / walk if you must!). However, each of us gets only one body! Consider that… and then maybe taking care of it doesn’t seem like such a cost – I know for me, this revelation came not a minute too soon.
In my next post I will outline in a bit more detail all the benefits I’ve realized going keto. This is the proverbial “Return on Investment” I’ve achieved by upgrading my diet plan. Can’t wait to share the “list of new features” you get with the upgrade 🙂 till next time – Ciao!