My current thinking on money and low carb diets

Epistemic status: Writing to think. Ie. I’m trying to figure it out. Feedback/​conversation would be appreciated.

Cross posted to my personal blog.

Background

Recently, I have been learning about low carb diets and how harmful carbs are. Mostly through Peter Attia, Tim Ferris, and What I’ve Learned.

So there’s that, and then there’s the fact that low carb seems to be the thing that works for me. I am 28 years old and am 5′6. At my peak, I was 165 lbs. That would put my BMI at 26.6, which would be considered overweight, and I suspect that a healthy weight is even lower than what those BMI calculators would indicate. I also have been gaining steadily since college. I think I was around 120 lbs in the beginning of college and maybe 130 at the end. Plus, my cholesterol and stuff is high.

But my diet has always been pretty healthy, I think. I only eat out maybe twice a month. I rarely eat processed meat, processed foods in general, deserts, or things with a lot of sugar, including fruit. I do a lot of cooking my own meals using raw ingredients. Chicken, beef, veggies, rice, pasta, beans, etc. That’s always been what I assumed was healthy.

On the other hand, I eat a lot. I’m not really sure how to describe this, but one indicative thing is that I often eat more than twice as much food as my girlfriend. And when I am eating meals with guy friends, I also often eat maybe 1.5x as much food as them. This is very ballparky, it’s hard to describe since I don’t have actual data on calories or grams. Another data point is that friends and family all notice and point out that I eat crazy amounts of food, and joke with me about it.

After learning about low carb stuff, maybe it makes sense. My plates are often 12 carb, 14 meat, 14 veggies. Maybe the carbs are making me hungry. I’m also a pretty good cook, so my meals are often pretty appetizing, making me want to eat more.

On top of this, I tried Tim Ferris’ slow carb diet once, and it actually worked! I lost a little over five pounds in, maybe two weeks? I forget. Unfortunately I ended up getting off the rails and giving up on it, but I really felt like it was working. So I get the sense that, at least for me personally, low/​no/​slow carb is what I need to lose weight and improve my blood numbers.

Expensive?

But here’s the thing: that seems to be rather expensive. It involves eating lots of meat, and meat is expensive.

Does it have to be? Is there a way to do the low carb thing in an affordable way? Let’s see.

Mr. Money Mustache

Mr. Money Mustache (MMM) wrote about this stuff a bit. Basically, this is what I think it comes down to. He identifies various ingredients that give you protein and have a low cost per calorie.

  • Eggs

  • Nuts

  • Nut butter

  • Oil

  • Milk

  • Protein powder

Let’s go through this.

  • Eggs I agree are pretty awesome in this sense. Healthy + cheap. Awesome. However, how much could you really utilizie that? Personally, I find that it’s hard to feel full after eating eggs given the soft texture. It’s the same thing I feel with soup and smoothies. I need something more solid in my stomach to feel full. I could just suck it up and deal with the hunger, but as Peter Attia mentioned, that’s not a winning strategy and he’s never met a patient who could do that successfully. Maybe my body will change though and start feeling full after eating eggs though. I’ve actually been noticing that a bit after starting the slow carb diet again about two weeks ago.

  • Nuts seem pretty good. And I like them. However, they kinda only work as a snack, not a meal. Am I wrong? When used in meals it’s always as a supplement. Like giving some crunch to a salad.

  • Nut butter I’m confused about. MMM mentioned peanut butter being a good cheap source of protein. But he also mentioned that you should buy the all natural kind without weird shit added to it. In my experience, those all natural nut butters are expensive. Plus, I’m not sure what you can do with them if it’s not on a sandwich. Well, you could dip apples or banana in peanut butter, but that’s a snack, and I can’t think of other fruits it’d go well with. Plus I’m trying to avoid fruits in the first place because of the sugar. Another thing you could do is make sauces or dips. Thai peanut sauce is really good. Chef John has a cool peanut curry I’ve always been meaning to try. And then there’s also tahini which can be used for cool sauces and dressings. But that stuff is all suplementary, not the focus of a meal.

  • Oil is the same thing. Supplementary. Plus it seems that stuff other than olive oil is terrible for you. And that when you buy olive oil at the store, they often cheat you and mix in a bunch of other oil. Which would mean you have to buy expensive olive oil instead. Plus, in this Peter Attia podcast, the guy he interviews says that it’s crucial for your olive oil to have a lot of polyphenols, which I suspect indicates even more strongly that you have to buy the expensive stuff.

  • Milk and dairy in general Ferris says shouldn’t be a part of the slow carb diet. I guess I’m cheating a bit because I have been including it in small amounts, but I suspect that is fine. However, it also means you can’t make milk a focal point. Plus, and I’ll get to this more later, I’m worried that all the corners they cut in farming the cows and obtaining the milk will make it bad for your health.

  • Protein powder I think would mean you have to make a shake using milk, right? I guess you could mix it with water too but that sounds gross. And I recall hearing things about how your body doesn’t process things well when you aren’t eating whole foods.

What do I take from this? Eggs are something I should focus on as much as possible (although I’m leaving the yolks out because of my cholesterol; I’ve heard that maybe they aren’t actually bad for your cholesterol, but it seems like a good idea to be safe and leave them out). Having nuts on hand as a snack is a good idea. But beyond that, I’m not really seeing much that is actionable.

Veggies

How else can we lower the cost of a low carb diet? The next place my mind goes is to eat a ton of veggies. At first that sounds reasonable, but one you get into the weeds, I’m not so sure.

Check out this spreadsheet I made of the cost of various ingredients. Some veggies are cheap: lettuce, carrots, cucumber, green peas, corn in particular. But those veggies a) aren’t very nutritious and b) aren’t very filling. With the exception of green peas. Which is partly why they are one of my favorite things. They’re also delicious and convenient, because they freeze so well.

If I were to go crazy with veggies, I’d want to be eating a lot of snow peas, sugar snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and brussel sprouts. But doing so would be expensive. And time consuming, by the way.

So I’m not sure how it’d really work in practice. Maybe I just need to figure out a big salad that works for me.

Tofu

In looking at my spreadsheet, tofu actually stands out as an excellent option, in terms of price and protein (and P/​E ratio). So maybe eating a lot of tofu moves us a step or two towards a solution of doing low carb without it being expensive.

However, I have some hesitation. If it became too big a part of your diet, I worry that you wouldn’t be getting enough nutrients. I recall hearing on the What I’ve Learned YouTube channel that meat is actually very nutritious, and it helps your body absorb those nutrients too. Also, I get weird “artificial” vibes from tofu. I could easily be on the wrong track with this thinking though.

Cheap cuts of meat

My understading is like this:

  • Prime cuts of meat have a lot of intramuscular fat, ie marbling. This makes them tasty. They’re also very tender. You should cook them fast using high heat.

  • Cheap cuts of meat don’t have this intramuscular fat, so flavor-wise, they need help. You can do this by slow cooking them in some flavorful medium (liquid or fat with salt, spices, acid, and/​or sugar). Slow cooking is also important because these cheap cuts have also have more collagen and chunks of fat, both of which need to be rendered out, otherwise they’re gross.

I really like cheap cuts of meat! Well, kinda. In theory I do. Sometimes I get weird fatty or chewy pieces that gross me out.

Prime cuts always feel like they lack flavor for me. I mean, they’re delicious, but I’d be much happier with a flavorful curry than an awesome steak. And this isn’t because I haven’t eaten the right steaks. I’ve eaten at perhaps the best steakhouse in the world.

I was watching Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection. He’s one of the best chefs in the world. In the episode on steak, he said:

I was talking to a friend of mine. He’s one of the top food writers in America. He said you can’t do a program on steak without going to this steakhouse in New York. It’s the best I’ve ever had. So where is it, what’s the name? He said oh it’s, it’s the Penthouse Executive Club or something. I said… ok, is that a restaurant? He said no it’s a strip club!

So, naturally, I went. I ordered the filet mignon. It was very good, but it just wasn’t my favorite thing ever. It cemented the opinion for me that steak just isn’t flavorful enough for me, and that limits it’s ceiling.

Anyway, I’ve had a lot of cheaper cuts like braised short ribs that are packed with flavor that I absolutely love. So it works out well. Last night actually I made Slow Cooker Sesame Beef (with a big pile of sugar snap peas and no rice) and it was delicious. Slow cooking also is quite convenient. It doesn’t take too long, plus you can cook in bulk easily, lowering the average cooking time invested per meal.

I also really like ground meats. I don’t feel like they are lower quality. I mean, I guess they are, but they taste perfectly fine to me. One thing I like to do is have ground beef with a bunch of indian spices along with green peas, and that’s an easy delicious low carb meal. It’s also pretty easy to cook that in bulk too.

So this all is seeming very good. However, even “cheap” cuts are still expensive! I spent some time looking around on various sites, and they’re usually $8-12/​lb. Actually, ground beef can be like $6/​lb if you’re lucky, but that’s still a lot.

Edit: I re-watched the episode and Heston was talking with a farmer and they both agreed that prime cuts are boring, lack flavor, and that they’d prefer cheap/​butcher cuts that are marinated with some creative flavor. I guess I’m not crazy after all!

Buying meat in bulk

Maybe this is a problem that can be solved by buying large quantities of meat in bulk. I’ve spent some time googling around though, and I’m not finding this to be the case. However, I do have an itching feeling that an answer is out there and I’m just not finding the right stuff.

Expensive meat is healthier?

In researching all of this meat stuff, I thought back to something I read in a blog post a while ago:

Do not eat cheap industrially-farmed animal products.” and “Eat organic when possible, especially when discussing animal products. Generally spend more money on food — the cheaper the food, the more “hacks” the producer used to be able to deliver that price. Many of these hacks are harmful — they inject saline solution to increase weight, feed dead animals to live animals, use antibiotics a lot etc.

Sigh. It makes sense. If I was an alien who visited earth and you described to me how the food industry works, what their incentives are, and how they cut all of these corners in producing the meat, I would expect that it’d cause some sort of non-trivial health problems.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have much evidence other than that blog post. I spent some time looking and couldn’t find anything. I also asked on LessWrong but it didn’t result in anything useful.

So, how should one act in the absence of more information? I feel like it’d make sense to default to eating expensive meat from farmers I trust. Which is bad news for the idea that you could do low carb cheaply. I’m not sure though.

Why not just get grass fed and organic stuff at grocery stores? My understanding is that those labels are BS. It’s too easy to sidestep, so ultimately you are stuck having to trust the farmer.

Low carb vs no carb

Here’s a point that I think is important. I suspect that right now, I need to go no carb or close to no carb in order to lose some weight and get my blood numbers down. But I also suspect that once I accomplish those goals, transitioning to a low carb diet would be fine, and probably even better than a diet without those carbs.

I’m talking stuff like oats, brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread. In moderation. Like maybe 14 of your calories. Not loading up on white rice, pasta and tortillas, as much as I would love to do that.

I think this point means that I’m not in danger of spending too, too much money long term.

Is it worth splurging?

The Mustachian in me is always looking for a way to do things on a budget, but I suspect that this is something that is worth splurging on.

The value of my time

Suppose I spend an extra $300/​month on food. How much would that cost me?

Weird question right? Isn’t the answer that it would cost… well… three hundred dollars?!

I don’t think so. Or rather, I don’t think that’s a useful way to think about money. I like to think about it in terms of how many hours it costs me.

I plan on retiring early. Currently I make $95k/​year. My paycheck is about $2800 every two weeks. That’s $280/​day. Let’s just assume I never get a raise or switch to a company that pays me more. I could prolong my retirement by one day and my last paycheck would be prorated, and would include an additional $280. So basically, by working one extra day, I could pay for healthier food for a full month. That seems worth it to me.

That’s only part of the story though. I’m really talking about a lifestyle change that will continue on once I reach early retirement as well. I use MMM’s technique of taking your yearly spending and multiplying by, say, 25 to arrive at how much you need to retire. If I spend an extra $300/​month, that is an extra $3600/​year. Multiplying by 25, it’s an extra $90k I’d need. Suppose that takes me something like an extra year to reach early retirement. That’s certainly inconvenient, but spending an extra year working in order to be able to afford a healthy diet throughout my life does seem worth it.

The value of my health

Here’s another thing. The reason why I am considering all of this is for health reasons. If I am right about it improving my health, then it will mean I don’t have to spend as much on healthcare in the future. Presumably. Office visits, blood tests, medications, consultations, EEGs, and surgeries. (I could hear my grandma saying “God forbid a million times Adam!”)

So then, it’s not really correct to say that I am spending money on this. If I don’t spend money on the healthier food, I will have to spend money on healthcare stuff. So I have to spend money either way. The question is just whether I’d prefer to spend it now vs later, and which one would involve spending more money. I don’t know the answer to that second question, but I could see the healthcare costs being more in the long run.

But even if they aren’t, if it saves me some money in healthcare costs, that puts a dent into how much I am paying for all of this. Like instead of $300/​month, if it puts a dent in my future healthcare spending, maybe it’s more like I am spending, I don’t know, $200/​month instead.

In which case, the question becomes whether the benefit of improved health (and taste, and warm fuzzies) outweigh this cost of, let’s say $200/​month. I feel like they do. $200/​month = $2,400/​year $24k/​decade = $120k/​50 years. I could very well see this giving me an extra year of life, and paying $120k for an extra year seems worth it. Government agencies value life at something like $120-200k, and I place more value on it than other people do. Plus the improved quality of other years I am living.