Berkeley’s Monterey Market, where Chez Panisse gets its produce. If it’s good enough for Alice Waters, it’s good enough for me.

Poor man’s paleo

Thriving on less than $10 a day

A poor man today can enjoy a higher standard of living than most kings throughout history. Supermarkets sell food that the richest people couldn’t get no matter how much they were willing to pay. Take basic spices – countries went to war to defend spice routes. Today, a cornucopia of food and spices it available, yet we mostly opt for a diet full of toxins, mutagens, carcinogens, and leading agents of obesity and diabetes: processed sugar and grains.

Modern consumers have a choice. We have set before us the ways of life and of death, blessings and curses. There is good, inexpensive, and untainted food available if you know where to look, but it’s also easy to overspend on borderline poisons, especially going out to eat. Eating well only seems expensive compared to industrially-processed “food-like substances” made from surplus commodities like corn, wheat, high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin (corn starch), soy, dextrose (corn syrup), and vegetable oil (made from corn). Department of Agriculture subsidies make them dirt cheap, but nature extracts her price in the form of future health care costs.

The USDA’s version was based on junk nutritional science backed by special interests. Why is the department of agriculture guiding our food choices anyway? Why not Health and Human Services, or the FDA? The short answer is that agricultural surpluses have to go somewhere. We have decided as a country to deposit them in our waistlines rather than throw them away. The government continues to selectively fund research that affirms this decision. Grains are championed and healthy fats are demonized.

Slowly, the nutritional consensus is shifting to a higher fat, lower carb “Mediterranean diet,” with plants and healthy oils at the base, but meat and animal products still high up the chain. While an improvement, I don’t think that the traditional Mediterranean diet goes far enough. I am persuaded that humans thrive on a combination of plant and animal products – and in particular, healthy fats from animals that have themselves eaten a healthy plant-based diet. “Paleolithic” diets encourage us to look back to what our ancestors might have eaten 50,000+ years ago. This might go too far.

My modified “Neolithic” pyramid still allows for a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables — wrought by advances in agriculture — and some limited grains, along with domesticated animals and their rich produce. Bread, cereal, rice and pasta get moved the top, while fats and meat are brought down to the base. Fruit and vegetables stay in the middle, and sugar stays up on top (hey, even a broken clock is right twice a day). The astute reader will notice that this is approximately an inversion of the old food pyramid.

The inverted pyramid lends itself to free, prosperous humans — not serfs who must subsist on the cheapest available calories. However, it is more expensive, and we’re not all kings and queens. The poor man’s paleo approach lets you buy great food on a budget. While it’s possible to survive on just a couple dollars a day eating food-like substances, thriving on a budget only requires a bit more effort. I believe anyone can make near restaurant-quality food at home — spending less, while eating food that is orders of magnitude more nutritious. In what follows, I try to separate the proverbial “wheat” from the “chaff” — where grass-fed meat is wheat, and industrially-processed wheat is chaff. I’ve found some ridiculously good deals around Berkeley, and I bet you can find them in your area too.

Core Calories

“Both the jayhawk and the man eat chicken, but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.” — Henry George

I believe in a plant-based diet, but it’s hard for humans — whose brains evolved to eat fish and large game — to survive on plants alone. So I mostly eat animals that ate plants. Still plant based!

While the paleolithic diet was mostly hunted and gathered, the Neolithic era brought with it advances in primitive farming and domestication of animals. Our clever ancestors discovered that you could get more out of animals when you were nice to them and got them to stay put. As a result, we can harvest a regular output of milk, eggs, wool, etc. from our domesticated friends — the cow, the pig, the goat, the sheep, and last but not least, the chicken.

7,000 years ago, the chicken was first domesticated in China and India — not for eating, but for cockfighting. Today, chicken is the most-consumed meat in the world. That’s because chickens are incredibly efficient at turning photosynthetic output like grass and seed into secondary nutrition-dense calories — meat and eggs.

But who wants to eat nothing but grass and seeds? Chickens! What’s more, they can be humanely raised on dirt-cheap feed in small spaces:

“Modern chickens are cogs in a system designed to convert grain into protein with staggering efficiency. It takes less than two pounds of feed to produce one pound of chicken (live weight), less than half the feed/weight ratio in 1945. By comparison, around seven pounds of feed are required to produce a pound of beef, while more than three pounds are needed to yield a pound of pork.”

Smithsonian Magazine *How the Chicken Conquered the World*

That explains why chicken is cheaper than beef, but the true miracle of efficiency is the egg.

A dozen eggs contain 1,000 calories and 72 grams of protein. I don’t skimp on eggs — since they’re already cheap — usually paying between $4 and $6 per dozen. Free range eggs just cost a dollar or two more than eggs from caged hens, and have noticeably darker yolks, indicating a better diet for the chickens. Trader Joes strikes a happy medium. Watch out for “vegetarian fed,” since chickens should ideally eat worms and insects.

Even better is growing your own eggs with a backyard chicken coop. Just build it, give them food and water, and you have a steady, cheap supply of eggs.

Tuna is called the “chicken of the sea,” but the sardine is far more deserving of this honor. Tunas are carnivores, getting their food from fish that are lower on the trophic chain. In elementary school, we learn that primary production (i.e., plants) requires less energy per calorie than secondary production (animals). That means there is a large energy loss involved from primary production (algae and plankton) to tuna, with fish like sardines playing the intermediate role of energy conversion. Also, pollution in the ocean tends to work itself into our food, getting worse the higher up the food chain you go. This is called bioaccumulation, and is one of the biggest reasons to avoid conventionally raised meats that are fed on diets of processed grains, corn, and soy.

Sardines are at the bottom of the food chain, so they are pretty safe. A can of sardines contains a whopping 15–20g of protein, plus 9g of healthy omega-3 fat — the same fats that helped humans evolve their big brains. They have no added sweeteners, antibiotics, or synthetic hormones. Some brands, like Wild Planet™, are sustainably caught. For these reasons and more, I was tempted to construct my food pyramid along these lines:

Grocery Outlet™ has been selling Wild Planet™ sardines for just $1 a can. Most places retail them for $3 or more. You can always get them for a reasonable $2 from Thrive Market™*. Trader Joes™ sells a lower grade for the same price, but the cans contain BPA (bisphenol A) — a synthetic estrogen used in plastics that has been linked to cancer and damage to reproductive organs. If you’re going to make sardines a staple like I do, it’s worth the wait from Thrive.

*Side Note: A Thrive membership is a great all-around poor man’s paleo hack — especially if you follow a lot of recipes calling for weird ingredients like coconut aminos, almond flour, or raw cashew butter. Be sure to email Thrive support and ask for a discount on annual membership fees (normally $100), or wait for one of their deals to come around. I’ve found them very generous in this respect.

It’s hard to find quality grass-fed meats for under $6–8/lb. Much of the cost comes from the relative inefficiency of cows at converting pasture (grass) into fat. The rest of the price difference is the cost of shipping refrigerated meat from places like New Zealand. While “buy local” doesn’t make sense for bananas or exotic spices, it often does for meat. A CSA — short for Community Supported Agriculture — can tell you know exactly where your meat comes from, and usually gives you more bang for buck.

Marin Sun Farms, the last remaining slaughterhouse in the Bay Area, delivers cheaper bulk orders all around the Bay. If you’re willing to travel to a farmers market, where individual vendors set up shop, you can pick up smaller cuts. I recently placed a bulk order with Heather’s Custom Meats for her surplus items, which included several pounds of liver, and other standard cuts of pork, lamb and beef.

Retail options are usually more expensive for a slightly lower quality. However, Trader Joes sells New Zealand grass-fed beef for $5.99/lb. frozen, and $6.99 refrigerated. Grocery Outlet frequently has unfrozen beef for $4.99/lb., but the quality is unknown (it’s Australian — no offense). The grass-fed label is relatively unregulated, and some unscrupulous companies still claim it despite feeding cows grains at the end of their life to fatten them up. By this definition, all cows are “grass-fed,” living the first part of their lives on the range before being fattened up on corn — and even candy — at the end of their life. Remember: you are what you eat eats…

Paleo is not an excuse for eating a triple bacon cheeseburger from Carls Jr. You have to be careful not to eat the wrong kinds, or eat them in combination with inflammation-causing carbs and sugars.

But don’t get discouraged: flipping fats from the top of the food pyramid to the bottom is as easy as A-B-C.

Avocado. In a world of universal deceit, buying a 4-pack of avocados is a revolutionary act. But seriously, what other fruit gives such a healthy portion of good fat? In addition to an impressive array of micronutrients and vitamins, a single large avocado has 20 grams of monounsaturated fat. Enough said. Put it in your salad. Put it on a toasted sprouted grain cracker. Add it to an omelet. Use it to make chocolate mousse. It’s good for your eyes, good for your heart, good for your hair, and dare I say, good for your soul?

Butter. Butter is my favorite kind of fat. You can use it to heal minor burns, enrich your morning coffee, add substance and flavor to vegetables, and add solid nutrition to just about anything. My cooking method usually involves throwing some combination of meat, eggs, mushrooms, nuts, and vegetables into a pan with a thick pat of butter. One tablespoon of Kerrygold grass-fed butter runs just $0.25 at Trader Joes. That’s a ridiculously good deal.

Coconut. Whether consumed as oil, cream, milk, butter, or raw, the coconut is another of nature’s miracles. Coconut oil is especially good for cooking, since it has a high smoke point, and doesn’t break down, or “oxidize” like olive oil. Coconut cream is a good addition to pan fried meals, giving it that creamy pad thai texture. It’s also a good dairy substitute and coffee creamer. You can buy big cans (20 oz.) for cheap at Asian grocery stores like 99 Ranch, or smaller cans at Trader Joes and Whole Foods.

Olive oil is also Good, but it has enough cheerleaders out there, so I’m not going to toot its horn or tell you where to buy it. Just watch out for brands that dilute with vegetable oil:

  • Colavita
  • Carapelli
  • Star
  • Filippo Berio
  • Mazzola
  • Mezzetta
  • Newman’s Own
  • Safeway
  • Whole Foods

Nuts get an honorable mention with The Good Fats™. I’m on the fence about peanuts, because I love the taste and frequently use them to add substance to my dishes, but they also have an addictive quality and it’s easy to overdo it.

Nuts tend to be higher in Omega-6 fats, relative to their healthier Omega-3 counterparts. Much has been written about the reason to have a higher Omega-3 : Omega-6 ratio, and I will refer readers who want to learn more to the Quick Guide to Bulletproof fats.

Finally, peanuts are legumes — not nuts — which means they contain fewer nutrients and even some compounds that bind to other nutrients in your bloodstream before you can absorb them. As a general side note, legumes like peanuts, lentils, and beans, are some of the cheapest calories, and are the cheapest non-meat source of protein. The risks from a “paleo” perspective are in these anti-nutrients like lectins and phytic acid. The harmful effects can be lessened by soaking and cooking (especially cooking in a pressure cooker), or roasting in the case of peanuts.

Walnuts and almonds seem to strike a good balance between cost and addictiveness. It’s hard to O.D. on walnuts, since they are so rich. Almonds are another “food of abuse,” so I have to be careful not to buy them too often. Same goes for macadamia nuts and Brazil nuts, which I’m excluding from this list because of the cost.

Produce

Each week I get a delivery of “Imperfect” Produce, which comes cheap because of the minor scars and deformities on the produce that make them unmarketable at the store. I can customize my box with my preferred vegetables, and put it on hold when I go away. Usually, a week’s worth of vegetables runs about $15.

Imperfect Produce offers both conventional and organic options. For certain items, I gladly pay a little extra for organic, like leafy greens, tomatoes, potatoes, stone fruit, and berries. For items with a thick rind or peel, like oranges, melons, onions and avocado, you’re safe going with conventional. Also, carrots can be peeled, as can beats, ginger, etc., meaning you can eat them without consuming whatever pesticide residue may have contaminated them during their growth.

Trader Joes sells a $2 bag of organic frozen spinach. That’s a ridiculously good deal. It can be turned into a tasty nutritional powerhouse by microwaving it with a bit of vinegar to thaw, then adding tahini for flavor and consistency. Trader Joes also sells frozen Brussels sprouts on the cheap.

Some say that frozen vegetables are often fresher than standard vegetables from the bins, because they are frozen immediately after being picked, rather than just before peak ripeness. I’m not sure about that, and I prefer unfrozen, but when the price is right…

Mushrooms soak up fats, enhance flavor, and provide healthy fiber, plus selenium, vitamin D, glutathione, and ergothioneine. Ergothioneine has been associated with neurological health and declining risk of Alzheimer’s. While expensive by the pound, keep in mind that mushrooms don’t weigh much, so pile them up.

Paleo generally emphasizes more fat and less sugar. However, not all carbs are created equal, and for most people on a budget, intelligent use of starches is a key to doing poor man’s paleo right.

Plantains and sweet potatoes and kabocha squash make for tasty deserts (add coconut cream, vanilla, and cinnamon for maximum effect).

Lentils, rice, and fruit are also paleo friendly— following an 80/20 rule: limit carbs to 20% of your calories and you should be okay. People with healthy metabolism can usually get along with more. Dates are another special treat.

Use Sparingly

Speaking of dates, there are times when it is reasonable and go off protocol. Here again, the 80/20 applies. I’ve learned that you don’t want to be “That Guy” who’s always talking about his weird restrictive diet, and you can only take your lady friend out for barbeque so many times. Eating well the majority of the time allows you to break the rules guilt-free from time to time. If you’re out on the town, Corona Light presents one low-carb gluten free beer option (it’s distilled from corn). And it’s cheap.

If you feel like a cocktail, a gin and soda with extra lemon tastes decent, or you can try my grandma’s favorite: Dewars on the rocks, with orange — a sort of old fashioned Old Fashioned (before the days of sugar).

Poor man’s paleo also involves a fair amount of opportunism, and what might be considered “cheating” if it weren’t such a great life hack. I eat quality Semifreddi’s kalamata olive bread (pictured below), when I get it for free, but eating grains too regularly is not good for your digestive system, and they contain very little nutritional value.

Sugar remains at the top of my food pyramid, but it’s often rude to turn down an offer of a desert just because it’s not paleo. When delicious desserts come across my path, I eat them sparingly, but sometimes you really do have to “Just Say No.”

#LifeHacks

Here is a short inventory of the ridiculously good deals I’ve encountered at local grocery stores.

I’ll add to this list as time goes on, and perhaps even add a whole section on Costco and Amazon shopping, quick food prep, and pressure cooker meals.

— $3.50 cashew yogurt.

— $5 per pound walnut pieces are a ridiculously good deal.

— Napa Cabbage ($0.79/lb.), great for making kimchi.

— $0.29 /lb. conventional yellow onions.

— Best deals on bulk olive/coconut oil, nut flours, chia seeds.

— Grass-fed beef for $5/pound.

— Special section for produce that is about to go bad (but much of it is very salvageable).

— Large tahini.

—Large coconut milk (cream), $2.19 per 20oz. can.

— Haas avocados: $0.79 each.

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