Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. The statements made here are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Please consult with your doctor or primary care physician before starting any new diet.
When most people hear “Paleo” they think low-carb, CrossFit and/or diet evangelism. And surely, there are those people who wear Paleo on their sleeve like a badge of honor (as if shopping grass-fed and organic makes them a better person somehow). But that’s only a small part of the story. At its core, Paleo is a diet that’s premised on the idea of food as medicine and focused on whole, local ingredients that are devoid of preservatives, pesticides, chemicals, artificial colors and taste enhancers. If you eliminate all processed foods, you’re already 80% there. In addition, the Paleo diet excludes dairy, legumes and grains (you can read up on the science behind this elimination here).
With strong ties to the functional medicine movement, for many Paleo isn’t really a “diet” as much as a lifestyle change for health reasons. In fact, different versions of what has come to be known as the “Paleo diet” are nowadays recommended by doctors for various chronic conditions – such as allergies, autoimmune disorders, asthma and rare diseases – and include additional lifestyle changes like sleep hygiene, exercise and stress reduction. I started following a modified version of Paleo - called the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) - after I was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition, only to find out that engaging in whole-food, nutrient dense cooking with high quality ingredients can be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. Spending 2-3 hours a day planning, prepping, cooking and cleaning isn’t very realistic when you have dissertation to write, neither is Whole Foods your friend when you work near the minimum wage.
It took a lot of time, money and frustration to figure out how to get healthier without breaking the bank, so I wanted to share a few tips for anyone who may be struggling like I did not so long ago. Since there are many great resources out there about budget-friendly shopping and cooking (incl. Katie’s very cool post), this post will focus specifically on Paleo-specific challenges.
Keep it simple: As Mickey Trescott points out, many who initially switch over to Paleo spend a lot of money and energy trying to recreate their well-loved recipes, such as pancakes, mac’ n’ cheese, breakfast cereal or pizza. But these “paleo-fied” recipes often call for specialty ingredients (maple syrup, tapioca starch, cassava flour etc.) that are some of the priciest on the market – and the results are mostly disappointing anyway. Soups and stews are easy to throw together, they’re easy to transport in an insulated food jar and they don’t get gross if they sit in the fridge a few days. If you own a slow cooker you can also have them cook while you’re at uni or just working at your desk – super convenient! Meat patties (with herbs!) and roasted vegetables are some other versatile staples of the Paleo diet, you can prep them both in advance and they go well with leafy greens, which are a good source of fiber and antioxidants. If you need more ideas, this list with beginner recipes is a great place to start.
Remember that meat is more than lean, organic, grass-fed steak: There’s a lot of misinformation out there about how to “do” Paleo and so many folks who switch over rely too heavily on lean, grass-fed beef cuts that cost a fortune. But there are many alternatives to filet mignon, including ground meat, which is generally cheaper than whole cuts, especially if pre-packaged. Usually, fatty, tough (shanks, oxtail, shoulder etc.) and bone-in cuts will also be cheaper than lean, soft and boneless ones. Buying whole animals is another budget-friendly option – if you don’t have freezer space for a whole cow you can start with a whole chicken, which will keep you fed for several days (or check out this article on “cowpooling” – yes, that’s a thing). Organ meats (whether beef or chicken) are another Paleo staple, they’re much cheaper, and more nutritious that muscle meats and they are highly recommended for those with chronic and autoimmune conditions. If you can’t stomach the idea of feasting on brains and gizzards, check out this article about sneaking offal into your diet. Finally, eggs (if you can have them) are another fantastic source of protein, they’re super easy to prepare and a great alternative if you’re struggling with the ethics of meat-eating.
For Omega-3 fatty acids, think beyond wild-caught salmon: Don’t get me wrong, I love a nice salmon filet, I just can’t afford them all the time. Canned is a budget-friendly alternative to fresh, frozen or smoked but it can get boring pretty fast. Actually, salmon isn’t even the food with the highest Omega-3 level out there – that would be salmon roe, with 3.5 times the amount found in salmon. Now, while fish eggs can cost you an arm and a leg at high-end stores like Whole Foods, you can get inexpensive and high-quality roe at ethnic grocery stores, especially Asian markets (sold as “sushi quality”). Another great source of Omega-3 are canned wild-caught anchovies and sardines and they’re much cheaper than big fish filets (salmon, tuna etc.). Sardines mashed with avocado and lemon juice is one of my favorite quick lunches/ snacks, while minced anchovies are a miracle flavor-booster in dressings, sauces and stews. I also like to boost my Omega-3 (and fat-soluble vitamin) intake with fermented cod-liver oil, which is the only supplement I take daily (if you’re not big on supplements you can review some of the benefits listed here). It’s pricey but one bottle lasts me about 3 months.
Get creative with bone broth: Homemade bone broth is a nutritional powerhouse and a staple among nutrient dense diets (whether that’s AIP, the Wahls Protocol, the Loving Diet, or “traditional” Paleo), but cheap grass-fed beef bones aren’t always easy to come by in big cities, especially now that broth has become so fashionable. For instance in West LA, my options are Whole Foods (which sells organic bones for about $7 a pound) and overpriced farmers markets. I occasionally order grass-fed bones from US Wellness Meats (which sells them for about $2.20 – $5.20 a pound), but that’s something I can’t afford everyday either. I do however make fish head stock a lot from heads I buy at my local fish market (heads are mostly just thrown out so I can usually get about 10 of them for $5 – you might even be able to get them for free). I also reuse bones a lot (more on that below). If you have a good butcher and live near a good farm and have access to high quality (organic, grass-fed), affordable bones take advantage of it. If not, think about the other types of bones you may be able to source locally.
Reduce waste, repurpose and reuse: We live in such a wasteful culture, and that shapes the way we treat food. Less than a century ago, people knew how to use every single part of an animal: they’d render their own cooking fat from pork, lamb, beef and duck, make chicken soup using chicken heads, feet and necks, and feast on lamb heads (a delicacy in Norway, Morocco and Greece). Nowadays more than 40% of our food is thrown out. That’s not just morally questionable, it’s a waste of money and resources. The most obvious way to avoid this, is to plan ahead (not my thing but you may want to consider meal plans) and to use fresh produce wisely. Another thing I do is buy cuts with bones and whole chickens, so I can reuse the bones to make bone broth. Sounds gross? It works! I keep a bag in my freezer, where I store all the bones and when I have a good portion, I’ll throw them all into a pot to make some broth. Since I started making my own broths, I also started saving vegetable parts (tops, leaves etc.) that I used to throw away. Similarly, fruit that is about to go bad I will turn into jams, chutneys or gelatin gummies (grass-fed gelatin powder isn’t cheap, but it’s great for the gut and a little goes a long way).
Keep in mind that DIY is your best friend and your greatest enemy: Paleo is big on preparing food from scratch (to save money and avoid sneaky ingredients) and experts will often recommend making “specialty foods” at home: nut milks, kombucha, bone broth, kefirs, salad dressings, pates, fermented vegetables, condiments, snacks/ chips etc. While you can save money this way and while I personally love spending time in the kitchen, I don’t think that’s realistic for the majority of grad students. Making all your food from scratch can easily turn into a full-time job, so make sure to prioritize: What are the two specialty foods you consume the most? For most of my friends it’s nut milks and salad dressings; for me it’s bone broth and kombucha, and so that’s what I make regularly. I’ve also found that it’s relatively easy to find affordable, high-quality fermented vegetables and liver pates at places like Trader Joe’s and (even) Whole Foods, so I don’t feel as pressured to make my own.
Get the right tools: If you’re serious about eating and living this way, you’ll want to invest in some good kitchen equipment. And while equipping a kitchen isn’t cheap, ultimately, with the right tools, you just save so much time it’s totally worth it. A good place to look for kitchen tools are consignment and thrift stores (especially for utensils, storage containers, blenders and pots/pans), while Amazon often has high-quality slow and pressure cookers on sale. Don’t know where to start? Check out this and this list with Paleo kitchen essentials. Personally, my can’t-do-without tools are my slow cooker (for broth, soups, stews, chilis and roasts), blender/food processor (for soups, smoothies, sauces and mousses), baking/roasting sheet (for veggies, mainly), glass containers (for food prep and for storing leftovers), and cast-iron skillet (for stir fries, frittatas and just about everything else).
Don’t forget your support network: Any major lifestyle change is difficult and friends and family often don’t know how to support you properly (even if they do mean well). There will be days when you’ll overspend, cook up inedible concoctions in the kitchen, and get so frustrated all you’ll want to do is quit. For troubleshooting and advice my favorite resource is the Facebook group The Paleo Approach, which is based on Sarah Ballantyne’s (PhD) book The Paleo Approach. Blogs I follow include Grazed and Enthused, The Paleo Mom, Against All Grain, Autoimmune Paleo, AIP Lifestyle, and Wellness Mama (note: not strictly Paleo).
Managing a chronic illness in grad school is already a huge challenge without the added stress of food sourcing, cost and preparation time. If you’re unsure about taking the leap to Paleo, or you’re just getting started and are feeling overwhelmed, I hope you will find this post useful in at least getting you pointed in the right direction.
Dr. Terry Wahls’ TEDx talk “Minding your mitochondria” (talking about how she used diet to beat progressive multiple sclerosis)
Danielle Walker’s How To Do The Paleo Diet
The Paleo Mom’s How To Get Started
The Wicked Spatula’s 23 Paleo Items You Have To Buy At Trader Joes
Against All Grain‘s Costco Paleo Shopping List
The Paleo Leap’s Paleo For Vegetarians? (if you like the premise of Paleo but not the part about eating animals)
[Image by Flickr user Andy Roberts and used under Creative Commons license]