Poor Man’s Keto
Everyone is talking about ketosis these days. Between the haters and the hype, there is a simple truth about Very Low Carb (VLC) diets, which is that they work when you follow them. Of course, the same thing can be said about caloric restriction — if you follow the rules, you will lose weight.
But the devil is in the details. Eating less is hard! Eating more is easy. The good news is that eating more fat is less hard than eating less, and still works.
Our animal appetites are ill-suited for modern life. Temptations are everywhere, and any dietary plan has to account for one’s limited reservoir of willpower.
As P.D. Mangan says, “[J]unk, ultra-processed food is everywhere, almost impossible to avoid unless you’re dedicated to doing so.”
The most frequently overlooked obstacle is the impossible levels of self-denial required to not submit to peer pressure. The concept of social proof explains why so many people try and fail to keep to a strict regimen.
“Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation.”
You see other people doing the normal thing — eating tons of simple carbohydrates and sugar— and you think it must be fine. Human desire tends to mimetic, or imitative, so when other people seem to be enjoying themselves eating pasta or cake, we tend to imitate them to obtain the same object (satisfaction).
But that satisfaction is only fleeting and tends to lead to more intensive desire for carbs and sugar, hence our society-wide addiction, and the prevalence of metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity.
Even though thousands of years of evolution have programmed our bodies to thrive on fat, more recent history has ingrained in us a farmer’s scarcity mentality. First, wheat domesticated us, and then more recently, sugar enslaved us by hijacking our minds with rushes of cheap dopamine.
The cheapest calories you can get come from processed, packaged foods loaded with sugar. A large donut delivers 400 calories for a dollar. A large McDonald’s french fries gives you 500 calories for under two. A half-pound of grass-fed beef costs closer to $3.50 for the same amount of calories and you have to go through the trouble of cooking it.
But eating to satiety on a high fat diet doesn’t have to cost any more than the Standard American Diet. Cutting carbs will not only save money on medical bills in the future, but can also save you time and money on your monthly dining bill. Below is my three-pronged approach to keto on a budget.
1. Use oils and full fat plants and dairy liberally
The biggest reasons diets fail is because people starve themselves of vital nutrients. When starting out on keto, it’s wise to double down on fats — eating more calories than you are used to, and reaching a level of satiety that makes you less tempted to cheat and eat sugar.
Start with a decent pour (1/4 cup, ~$0.50) of heavy cream in your tea/coffee. If you are used to eating in the morning, two cage-free eggs ($0.75) cooked in a tablespoon ($0.25) of Kerrygold grass-fed butter can tide you over until lunch time.
Total breakfast cost = $1.50
I’m partial to the Thick Salad(TM), which uses a smallish amount of greens ($0.50) to absorb a large amount of olive oil ($0.15), some full fat feta, blue cheese or parmesan ($0.25), olives ($0.25), and some seeds or nuts for crunch ($0.25). My mouth is already watering thinking about this, but if you are feeling extravagant and want to make it something you actively look forward to, try adding a sliced up pre-cooked sausage ($1), or medium avocado ($1).
Total lunch cost = $1.40–2
Dinner is where you get to splurge. Protein is satiating, but we don’t want to go overboard. Remember that keto is a high fat, very low carb, moderate to low protein diet. Half a pound of meat would be overkill, but a reasonable portion of free-range chicken or grass-fed beef is important for the nutrient profile it delivers. Roasted non-starchy vegetables like asparagus, zucchini, Brussels sprouts or eggplant coated generously in salt, garlic powder, and olive oil are delicious and easy to put on a baking platter in the oven for 20 minutes. In that time you can cook up your meat in a pan with a large pat of butter or 2 tbsp. coconut oil. I like to add two or three dollops of sour cream or full fat Greek yogurt mixed with hot sauce or mustard as a dipping sauce for my vegetables.
Remember that keto is a high fat, very low carb, moderate to low protein diet.
I sometimes enjoy a small side salad like the one I had for lunch.
For desert, I make a bowl of chia pudding by drenching 3 or 4 tbsp. of chia seeds in almond milk (it doesn’t have to be precise — just enough liquid for the seeds to swim in), and then a splash of heavy whipping cream + salt and a few nuts or frozen berries.
The most expensive component here is the meat – maybe $3 per person, and the rest is no more than $3 per person if you’re buying reasonably priced produce (Imperfect Produce is my go-to).
2. Stop eating out
This one is hard for people with active social lives. We break bread for more reasons than just to fill our stomachs. It’s the primary social activity among human beings, and forms bonds. But the restaurant and bar culture saps our pocketbooks and is less conducive to friendship than we think.
Think of how often you’ve gone out to eat with a big group and felt resentment at overpaying when it comes time to split the bill.
Instead, try inviting friends over for dinner and feeding them a healthy, full-fat feast. Not only will they remember it and be likely to return the favor, but cooking in bulk is cheaper and takes less time averaged across the number of people eating. Each time you do it it’s like making a deposit in a bank of good will. You might even start a revolution in your friend group of rotating house dinners.
This is hardest for people who work long hours or find it hard to pack a lunch for work.
A corollary to this is not giving into the temptation to eat free food provided by your employer or brought in by coworkers for birthdays, etc. It may be wise to keep a keto-friendly snack at your desk like almonds to avoid giving into these temptations.
3. Make friends with eggs and offal, and restrict protein
Eggs provide a nutrient profile that is almost as good as chicken or beef and for about half the price per serving. Learning multiple ways to prep eggs, and paying extra for good quality eggs can turn them into more of a treat. A soft-boiled egg with pink Himalayan salt and cracked black pepper is delicious.
For meat, Trader Joe’s and Grocery Outlet both sell reasonably priced grass-fed beef ($6 and $5/lb. respectively), but you can save time and money by buying in bulk from a Community Supported Agriculture vendor.
In the Bay Area, I highly recommend buying bulk frozen meats from Heather’s Custom Meats, especially when she has sales.
Heather's Custom Meats raise Black Angus cattle and pork in Sonoma County. Heather's is committed to raising animals in…
Butcher shops also sell grass-fed liver for around $3 per pound, and bones for less.
There are also produce CSAs, but I am very happy with my Imperfect Produce deliveries. Each week, for around $15, I get enough salad greens and vegetables for roasting/sautéing for my dinners — just $2 a day!
There are also documented health benefits to restricting from protein — almost equal to the benefits of fasting altogether, but without as much of the difficulty. Not eating meat on one or two days a week saves money and helps your body operate more efficiently.