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Economical Protein

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One of the biggest mistakes I made for years was undereating protein. The food pyramid guidelines seem designed to give the bare minimum of protein and fat for life support. The new 'food plate' isn't much better. The result for me was lean mass loss and fat gain. The exact opposite of what I wanted.

When I started eating an appropriate protein amount, I gained lean mass and lost fat without changing my routines. I still got the same amount of exercise, but my body composition reorganized.

The amount of protein that I eat is 80-100g per day, or a 4oz serving 3-4x per day. That is about 16oz/1lb per day, 112oz/7lbs per week. My husband should be eating almost double that, but he only eats dinner with me. So we eat about 150oz/9lbs protein per week at home.

Oh my. How do we afford that?

- Eggs. Once maligned for its cholesterol, 30 years of clinical testing has never shown a correlative link between dietary cholesterol and blood serum cholesterol. Eggs are the most primal and basic protein source we can eat. And cheap. Even organic eggs at $4 per dozen is way more economical than the cheapest cut of beef. $4 per dozen might look expensive compared to the supercheap $0.99 cartons, but it's only $0.33 per egg. A large egg has 4.8g protein. Make a 2 egg omelet, and you're still under $1 for breakfast. Forget the transfat McDonalds dollar menu - pick up a carton of real eggs. And eat the whole egg. All the nutrition is in the yolk. Phosphorus, selenium, chromium, choline, folate, B12, Vitamin A/D/E/K - all the good stuff - are contained in the yolk. Egg whites are only good for angel food cakes, in my opinion. If you're skipping the yolk, you're skipping the nutrition. I eat 2-3 eggs per day.

- Chicken. The saying, "A chicken in every pot", was a desire from King Henry IV of France who wanted no one so poor they couldn't have a Sunday chicken. It seems odd to us, but a roast chicken was once a luxury and a sign of prosperity. The 17th century French would consider us all Marie Antoinettes with our giant KFC chicken leg buckets! For best value and health, buy fresh from the grocery. Chicken legs and thighs are usually the cheapest cuts. Chicken breasts are generally more pricey, but still a bargain compared to most cuts of beef. Due to the popularity of Buffalo Wings, chicken wings have become almost as expensive as chicken breasts! The cheapest chicken is to buy the whole chicken and cut it up yourself. I watched vids on YouTube to learn how to cut a whole chicken. I did a horrible job the first time. The meat was torn, it didn't look anything like the butcher cut, and I had way too much meat left on the bone. I got a lot better with practice. Now I can cut up a chicken in less than 5 minutes. Most of the time it still doesn't look nearly as neat and perfect as the butcher cut, but it's more than adequate for my purposes. There's a little meat left on the bone, and that gets thrown in a crockpot with an onion to make homemade chicken broth. I use the broth all week for soups and flavor additions to recipes. A whole $6 chicken lasts me all week. My depression era grandma would be proud.

- Skirt/flank/london broil/chuck roast steaks. These are generally the most economical cuts of beef in my area, averaging about $2-4/lb. Flank steaks have become slightly more expensive due to a certain popular Food Network chef making them in vogue, but they are still a regular in my shopping list. They are tough cuts of meat, so cooking method and cutting across the grain are crucial to make them edible. I prepare them with tex-mex and asian marinades or slow cook at low temp in the oven. My favorite recipes with these cheap cuts are carne asada, fajitas, Thai style steak with lime dressing, Korean kalbi, pot roast, braised beef, and chilis.

- Pork. These days, pork is less fatty and safer to eat than in our grandparents' generation. It's the cheapest cut of meat next to chicken. A pork tenderloin roast generally costs me about $4/lb. A whole loin is too much for 2 people, so I generally cut it into dinner sized portions and freeze the rest. A pork roast is about $2.50/lb. I'll slow cook it in a crockpot with a little water, then shred it for pulled pork with a homemade bbq sauce. I've learned a few tricks about bbq from my time in the South!

- Fish. I am very, very picky about my fish. I couldn't eat salmon until I moved to the PacNW where I bought the freshest of the fresh. Salmon that has a strong fishy taste is bad salmon. Fresh salmon tastes 'creamy' and 'buttery'. I am a bit of a salmon snob, having been spoiled by living in the PacNW for 6 years. My favorite is Copper River Sockeye salmon. Atlantic salmon is more common on the east coast. When buying salmon, only buy wild caught. Farmed salmon does NOT contain high omega-3s. The omega-3 comes from the salmon eating krill. Farmed salmon eat a corn feed. Fresh sockeye salmon is bright red. Farmed salmon is a pale pink (that is enhanced by additives in their feed). There's a big difference. During salmon run season, I buy fresh wild caught sockeye salmon from Costco for $9/lb. It's more pricey than the other cuts I've talked about so far, but it's worth it. Salmon run season is very short, and I take advantage of it while I can. The rest of the year, I buy the frozen wild caught Sockeye salmon from Costco. I buy wild caught tuna and cod frozen, as well. Not only is it more economical, but there also isn't a rush to use it.

- Canned fish. Not my favorite, but I do keep a supply of canned tuna on hand. The only type of canned salmon I can eat is also from Costco. Again, I'm really sensitive to the 'fishy' taste. The canned salmon that doesn't give me a bad 'spit it out' reaction is the wild caught brand in a black can. I don't buy a lot of this, but I do keep it handy. I generally make salmon burgers out of it for a quick lunch. Tuna salads are a staple, and the cat also enjoys an open can!

- Whatever is on sale. I generally buy more expensive cuts like ribeye or top sirloin only when it's on sale.

Protein we don't eat every day:

- Steak. Ribeye at my local grocery store costs about $12/lb. We go to Charleston, SC every other week to shop at Costco where we can buy it for $8/lb. We bring it home, vacuum seal it, and store in the freezer. We have a 'steakhouse' meal at home one night per week.

- Beans. Beans have some protein, but they are more carbohydrate. I generally only use a small quantity in my chili recipes or soups. My husband also has a rather unpleasant reaction to them, and we don't feel it's worth it.

Because we keep a constant supply of protein in our freezer, it's hard for me to estimate what our weekly protein budget is. The only meats that I tend to buy fresh weekly are whole chickens and eggs. The red meat and fish is rotated out of the freezer and bought fresh on an irregular basis.

All of our meals are accompanied with fresh vegetables. Last night we had Thai steak with lettuce leaves for wraps, snap peas, seaweed salad, and a little basmati rice. The flank steak was the most expensive ingredient at $4/lb. I cooked a 10oz portion, which costs roughly ~$2.50. This was divided into a 4oz portion for me, 5oz for DH (about 1oz is lost after cooking). I estimate the cost of our meal at $2.50 per person. We each had a glass of wine, increasing the cost of the meal to $4.50 per person. $9 total with wine for two people, $5 without wine. I don't know of any Thai restaurant that can beat that price.

Eating enough protein to be healthy hasn't been difficult or expensive for me at all. In many cases, I can buy organic and wild caught proteins very economically as well.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    It's also important to remember that when you STOP buying cereal, bread, pasta, chips, cookies, individual fruit yogurts, jugs of OJ, and other high-carb foods, you will magically have an extra $20 per week to spend on meat.

    And don't forget that for an initial investment, you CAN get high-quality, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat for a much lower price than you'll find at the grocery store: purchase a Meat CSA! Here in Chattanooga, I can get a 24lb package of 100% organic ground beef, steaks, beef roasts, pork loins, chops, and sausages for $145 -- the same amount and variety of organic meat at a Whole Foods would easily cost $200.

    Now granted, for some folks, finding $150 up front is a bigger challenge, but when your grocery bills are cut in half for the next six weeks, I'd say that's a worthy investment! And heck, if you can afford a veggie CSA as well, then you're spending all of $15 per week for the whole growing season!
    2130 days ago
    I don't think I could meet my daily protein requirements without eggs. I eat them for breakfast and a snack. Nothing keeps my hunger in check as well as eggs.
    2131 days ago
    Everybody thinks I'm nuts because I eat eggs everyday. I wish I could afford all that meat you mention. We eat chicken 6 out of 7 days. We eat a lot of beans, but I have been contemplating going low carb.
    2132 days ago
    Great blog! Eggs are my least expensive go-to protein. I also cruise the meat and fish sections of my local supermarket for anything that is significantly reduced because it's nearing it's expiry date. A few times I've been lucky to find lovely organic, grass fed sirloin steaks there for more than 50% off the regular price. Food is generally very expensive here in the UK, but I'm not really sure why that is, as nearly all the eggs, meats, and a large percentage of the produce is local.
    2132 days ago
    I love protein and will be boosting my protein intake while recovering!
    2132 days ago
    Great blog! I've been working on increasing my protein too. I found that beans work better if you increase them gradually into your diet. Now I eat beans every day. They are fantastic for fiber. #beangeek
    2132 days ago
    love eggs too, although I'm not eating quite that many...but it's not because I'm worried about cholesterol. Just not my habit.

    Nice run down of protein sources, glad you found wild caught salmon! love the stuff!
    2132 days ago
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    Big fan of the eggs! Especially because I can hard-boil 'em on the camp stove and put 'em in a ziploc bag and tuck 'em behind the seat in my kayak. They taste even better if I have a little hot sauce packet too.
    2133 days ago
    Great info my friend!

    Here's a question i ask myself periodically when faced with the dilemma of paying more for stuff. "If someone told you you could drop 20 lbs by spending an extra $100 a month, would you do it?"

    Hell ya! I've spent more than that on all sorts of crap that never worked, so why not spend a little extra on quality food. There are times when I'm traveling on the road and instead of dinner, I'll pop into a Whole Foods or other grocery store and grab a rotisserie chicken for $5 and have dinner & lunch the next day.

    I have me a 3-egg breakfast every morning (since going low carb) and SWMBO is our grillmeister, cooking chicken, salmon, and our new favorite, tilapia on the barbie, along with tons of zucchinis, onions, jalapenos, and whatever other veggies are looking good.
    2133 days ago
    This blog has great info; thank you! I did not know that farm-raised salmon were fed corn . . . which makes me wonder why the "organic" restaurant I went to last weekend served salmon that was indeed pale pink. Hmmm. Thanks again! emoticon
    2133 days ago
    I also shop the clearance section and have scoped out all the local stores for the times and dates for greater success. Organic chicken legs today for 99 a pound, half the price of the regular chicken legs. Ralph's is best on Monday or Tuesday, when the sale items of the week start getting near the expiry date. Last week's salmon was 1.99 a pound, but I could only get one package.
    2133 days ago
    I know I need more protein and I really appreciate all the information in this blog. One thing, however, makes me sad.... those years at the end of his life after his heart attack when my dad didn't eat eggs.... and he loved them. I am working at making up for him.
    2133 days ago
    Doh! How did I forget to mention the ground beef?

    We have less food waste, too.
    2133 days ago

    Comment edited on: 8/15/2012 6:21:57 PM
    "Farmed salmon eat a corn feed."
    Is there anything to which 'they' won't feed corn?!?

    ...and you would appreciate today's MDA... there's been a recent observational study released in the news implying eggs are as bad for your arteries as are cigarettes:


    We eat at least three eggs a day each in our house (I have hard-cooked in the fridge all the time for snacks), and to reduce the cost of chicken, we buy skin/bone on/in... more flavourful (have you tried canning your own chicken... it's not hard, and it's so much tastier than store canned fish). We also eat a lot of high quality ground beef (scramble-fry, no filler... I love it for breakfast with my eggs). Tenderloin is GREAT... we fed 40 adults/20 kids with a Paleo tenderloin feast for under $120 for everything... meat and sides (we did them on the BBQ and people were licking their plates thinking us brilliant)... and no one went away hungry.

    Honestly, I find we manage our food resources so much better eating low-carb (I'm not even sure why that is.... even with all of the meat we are spending less)... and it seems we eat/waste less.

    Great blog!

    2133 days ago

    Comment edited on: 8/15/2012 6:26:11 PM
    Luckily we get free eggs off my sister and fish is cheap if you buy it whole and fillet it yourself (people are so lazy these days) Mackerel $4 a kilo is my favourite, usually a 2 kilo mackerel yields just over a kilo of fillets, making it $8 kilo (or around US$2.90 per pound)
    2133 days ago
    Quick conversion of USD to NZD and pounds to kilo conversion shows:

    Chicken Breast: ~$7.25/lb USD
    Beef: ~$4.35-$14.50/lb USD
    Lamb: ~$9-$10.90/lb USD

    That is a bit more than we pay in the States. The cost of lamb blows my mind, though. We buy it from Costco for about $8/lb! I've often wondered how it can be so relatively inexpensive since it's shipped from New Zealand. It makes no sense that you pay more for it in New Zealand!!!
    2133 days ago

    Comment edited on: 8/15/2012 6:12:57 PM
    Things are obviously a lot cheaper in the states. Over here in New Zealand chicken breast is $20-$25 a kilo. Even the cheapest cuts of beef are $12 a kilo up to $40 a kilo for sirloin and lamb is a rediculous $25-$30 a kilo even though we are a country of only 4 million people and 30 million sheep. All our meat gets exported and the poor locals have to fight over the scraps.
    2133 days ago
    Fitness Mag has an interesting article on eggs this month complete with yummy recipes! Basically it states just what you are. Whole eggs are good for you!! SO eat em up everyone.

    Seafood is my favorite protein. Low fat and for me free thanks to my fisherman fiancee'!! I really do eat fish twice a week.

    I also keep greek yogurt (non fat) in the fridge as a protein staple.
    2133 days ago
    Great blog! Pricing is a little different here but the idea is the same. Thanks for the inspiration!
    2133 days ago
    Great information. You stated less interest in beans but how about Tofu or soymilk.
    2133 days ago
    This may not work everywhere but I've discovered that Vons/Pavillions/Safeway [same company, different names for locations] often put meat in their 'clearance section' that's 30-50% off the 'lowest price,' which is always what the 'members' pay. So what might seem to be $12-$14 per pound could be marked down to $6-$8 per pound for members and then marked down by 50% in the clearance section. I find that by carefully shopping in that section, I can get ribeye steaks for $2-$4 apiece, which I can afford pretty well. Of course, they also mark down chicken, turkey, bacon, roast and many other cuts of meat - but I really LOVE ribeye steaks and this is the only way I can justify the expenditure.
    2133 days ago
    Good tips - thanks. It is kind of daunting the first few times you look at that meat case and see the prices. Coupons, sales, these things all help.
    2133 days ago
    Thank you for sharing these helpful tips.
    2133 days ago
    WOW very informative and helpful. Thanks for the tip about the video. Iam going to search for it. I really need to learn how to cut up a whole chicken, and I am going to start making my own broth. Again, thank you.
    2133 days ago
    Excellent points! So many people bewail how expensive protein is, but, as you point out, even the expensive eggs are still a heck of a bargain!

    Anyone switching from processed foods to whole foods will notice the positive difference in just a couple of weeks. The most expensive out of season fruits and veggies are still cheaper than the frankenfoods from the drive-through.

    Almost as an afterthought is the bonus you get from not eating as much of anything because your appetite is satisfied from the protein and fat content. You don't NEED to buy carts full of snacks to fill up on, because you're already full from dinner!
    2133 days ago
    You win the most informative and helpful blogs on SparkPeople award, hehe. Thank you for sharing! You're inspiring me to eat more protein!
    2133 days ago
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