The types of questions I see most often about the Paleo diet have to do with eating Paleo on a budget.
Searching for “Paleo on a budget” on PaleoHacks alone yields about 1,150 results, plus we have our Ultimate Guide to Eating Paleo on a Budget from last year, which dove into how and where you buy your food.
There is an inherent expectation that a diet full of healthy foods will cost more than the standard American diet. The question that I sought out to answer once and for all, is can you eat Paleo on a tight budget and start saving money?
Let’s find out, shall we?
A Quantitative Method for Paleo a Tight Wallet
The generic answers to this question typically consist of suggestions to clip coupons, find sales and buy in bulk, which are all okay answers. The problem is that the options you might have to do any of these three things will depend solely on where you live and what you have access to.
In order to really find an answer to this problem, I set out to quantify Paleo foods that give you the best bang for your buck in terms of nutrients.
A lot of the methodology was already taken care of previously by Mat Lalonde. I used a similar procedure that he describes in this lecture on nutrient density:
Here’s what the process looked like:
- Find a database with several thousand foods: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides an extensive database full of nutritional breakdowns for just about all foods. You can get a copy here if you ever need one.
- Get pricing data for these foods: The trickiest part was finding how much these foods cost across the country. There are variations by region, which means some pricing may be more relevant than others for you. Once again the best data available came from the USDA here, which contains the typical costs of foods per 100 grams for a few thousand items.
- Calculate a nutrient density (ND) score: I took an almost identical approach that Lalonde took, only considering essential nutrients. While there are some limitations of this, it’s a suitable measure for this purpose.
- Calculate a final price score (PS): By dividing the nutrient density by the cost obtained in step 2, a score that represents the nutrients you get for your dollar can be calculated. Here’s a visual equation to see how it works out:
- Strip data and organize: After calculated an NS for all foods available, I simply removed any foods without pricing data. The final step was going through each of the foods, categorizing them and separating Paleo and non-Paleo foods.
Limitations of this Approach
While I still believe that the results are practical and conclusive, there are a few limitations that should be addressed before we dive-in to the fun stuff:
- Taking form into account: I elected to be lenient with the forms of food included. For example, orange juice is included, although juice may not be all that healthy for several reasons. I will address these situations as they arise in the results, but for now just be aware of them.
- Paleo classification: Everyone has a slightly different definition of what foods are and aren’t Paleo. If there are some foods included that you don’t consider Paleo, simply ignore them. I’ve included a copy of the spreadsheet at the end of this article that you can modify to fit your preferences.
- Regional cost variation: If you live in a different part of the country, or even another country altogether, of course foods may cost a different amount. Feel free to edit the spreadsheet with your own prices if you want the most accurate data for your situation.
With that being said, let’s look at the results!
A quick look at the distribution of price scores (PS) reveals a near chi-squared distribution as shown below with an average value of 21.37.
Note that these are relative numbers, so we are interested in the best. Assigning an arbitrary ‘good value’ cutoff at a PS of 20 let’s us examine the results further. This leaves us with 34.1% of Paleo foods that give you a fairly substantial return on your dollar.
While there are less non-Paleo foods overall (415) compared to Paleo foods (659) in the spreadsheet, there were still about the same amount of foods that make it past the cutoff value:
- Paleo foods with a PS over 20 – 222
- Non-Paleo foods with a PS over 20 – 212
What this tells us is that non-Paleo foods as a whole are more suitable for eating on a tight budget. However, we don’t really care about them as a group, because there are a substantial amount of Paleo foods that also provide a great amount of nutrients per dollar spent. Remember that this analysis does not consider things like anti-nutrients, which would only favor Paleo foods more.
We now have a conditional answer that yes, it is possible to eat Paleo on a budget. I say conditional, because if hypothetically all the foods that have a good PS score were fruits, that wouldn’t be the best diet. As long as there is a decent variety of foods above the cutoff, it won’t be difficult to put together a cheap and effective diet.
By looking at the best and worst foods in each type of food, we can start to get a picture at what a cheap Paleo diet would look like. If you wanted the absolute cheapest diet, you should base your diet primarily on the absolute top results, as shown below.
Before we really dive in, I caution you to avoid knee jerk reactions when you see some of your favorite foods ranked low. Remember that this takes into account both nutrition and price, and some really healthy foods are just quite expensive.
Proteins (Meat Products/Eggs)
I know from experience that one of the most difficult aspects of eating on a tight budget is getting enough protein, especially if you are active, which makes this the perfect place to start.
Take a look at the following image of the top protein sources in this category, ordered by PS.
There’s a ton of eggs and organ meats. Most have excellent nutritional densities and are also affordable.
Eggs at breakfast? Great idea, even for people with a small budget. However, I know that many people aren’t big fans of organ meats (myself included), so let’s go down the list a little further to find more common meats.
That’s looking quite a bit more appetizing! You also might have noticed that we are still above the average PS score, which means these are suitable for most budgets. As some of you might have guessed, there is a lot of ground meat, turkey and chicken in particular (beef is a little lower down with a PS of ~21).
Overall, there is a great variety of protein sources that give you great value for your money. Even more impressive is that the nutrient density score did not include essential amino acids (data not available), which artificially lowers the scores shown here.
Fruits and Fruit Juices
Fruits, like vegetables are a great source of fiber and certain vitamins on a Paleo diet. Have a look at the best foods in this category:
There are a lot of juices at the top, mostly because they are extremely cheap. However, there are also some solid fruits if you would like to stick to a stricter Paleo diet, which includes kiwis, bananas, guavas and grapefruit.
Let’s take a quick look at the worst fruits to buy when money is tight.
I’m not going to lie, it was a little bit disappointing seeing apples and blueberries down there!
Before we start looking at the data, I’ll preface the analysis by saying that vegetables are all-stars when it comes to eating on a budget. Here are the best of the best, which all have scores substantially about the average.
Cabbage is a mainstay on this list, but the popular sweet potatoes are also ranked highly. You should also keep in mind that average serving size is different for all these foods. For example, you can eat a lot more of sweet potatoes than seaweed, so if you are lacking calories, go with the potatoes.
I’ve included the following image of the worst vegetables purely because it’s fascinating to me as a supporter of Paleo and I’m sure you’ll find it interesting too.
What pattern do you see? A large portion of the lowest ranked vegetables are corn! This really shows that processed foods (like all the common processed corn products) get a lot cheaper to make, as corn isn’t cheap in its natural form. It also shows that corn isn’t very nutritious, which means those processed products likely have right around zero nutrients left when they are consumed.
Are You Nuts?
A Final main category that I would like to go over are nuts and seeds. Nuts are some of the most expensive foods, but they are thought to be relatively healthy, and in fact many types of nuts had impressive nutrient densities. There were a few interesting results in this category, as seen below:
Despite the high price, there are still quite a few nut options that have a solid PS score. Cashews for example are quite expensive, but have a good nutrient density. Another important factor, which is why I wanted to go over nuts in particular, is that they are extremely calorie dense compared to any other type of food we’ve looked at. If you are lacking calories in your diet, incorporating some of these nuts may be the way to go.
Putting it all Together: A Budget-Friendly Paleo Diet
There are still a few minor categories that I have not gone through, which are the controversial legumes, as well as spices and herbs. Spices score okay on this spreadsheet, but considering you rarely eat much of a spice it isn’t a big concern when budget is the topic.
Here is an example of Paleo foods you could base your diet around, all of which provide good nutrition for your dollar according to their PS scores.
I selected foods that I think would be the most popular choices for staples of a diet, however your preferences may be different. I strongly encourage you to download a copy of the spreadsheet and play around with it to find foods that work for you.
As I’ve briefly touched upon earlier, you will also have to consider the calorie density and serving size of these foods. If you find that you have too many calories in your diet, choose more of the foods above that have a low calorie density and typical serving side. If you are lacking calories, do the opposite.
So there we go! Not only is it possible to eat Paleo on a diet, you can also enjoy a fairly wide variety no matter what your food preferences are.
Do you have any personal insights into this matter or have any questions about the data or spreadsheet? Please leave a comment below and let me know how it has worked for you!