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How to have a nutritionally sufficient diet on a budget

Updated on March 9, 2014

In this article, I will try to come up with a diet that is nutritionally sufficient (meaning trying to avoid any nutritionally deficiencies) while on a really tight budget. I mean on a budget so tight that you can not even afford to buy fresh meat as part of a healthy diet. Perhaps your budget only allows for two fast-food meals a day, pancake for breakfast, or peanut butter sandwichs for lunches.

I'm sure most of you reading this are not in that kind of budget situation (after all, you probably are reading this from your own home internet connection). But the truth is that many people in the United States are in this exact dietary predicament and which is partly the cause of the rise in obesity epidemic. Even if you are well-off enough to not need this low-cost diet, it is good to read though as it contain links to many of my articles explaining dietary principles and why I choose the types of food I choose.

So let's see if we can come up with a diet that is better than that and for about the same amount of money. Keep in mind that I am not a nutritionist and that this is just my own opinion, perhaps others can come up with better diets.

While I would have like to titled this article as "healthy diet on a budget", I do understand that an optimally healthy diet would generally be more expensive including things like grass-fed meat, pastured raised eggs, free range chickens, and an wide assortment of organic vegetables. Not everyone can afford to eat like that. And in many improvised parts of the world, these types of food are not even available. Even in the United States in certain areas known as "food deserts", the only nearby place to buy food is an Seven-Eleven or similar convenience store with mostly packaged and nutritionally devoid processed foods.

Note that I am not advocating this "nutritional sufficient diet on a budget" for everyone. I'm just saying that if that is all that you can afford, you might want to consider this. But if you can afford more, then certainly there are much healthier diets.

I grouped the diet into categories of food. For each categories, I try to give you two options for variety. And a few additional options in rare instances that you want to splurge a little.

The diet does not include any highly processed foods nor fast food as I feel that most of these are not as nutritionally dense as whole natural foods. When you are on a budget, it is important to use the money to buy nutritionally dense foods. That means food that gives a lot of nutrition for a small price.

Here it goes...


Any nutritionally sufficient diet must include vegetables. They provide the phyto-nutrients, antioxidants, and vitamins for health. They also help feed your good bacteria in your gut and keep them healthy. Ideally you should should eat as wide of a variety of vegetables as possible chosen from different color categories (such as in a rainbow diet).

For this category, a low cost option is cabbage, which is a cruciferous vegetables. While the green standard cabbage is less expensive, once in a while get the red cabbage too. Or you can get Napa cabbage and make homemade KimChi as a source of healthy fermented food. On a per cent basis, cabbage can probably buy a lot of nutrient for a small price.

Cabbage is particular strong in vitamin K, vitamin C, and vitamin B6. It has manganese, fiber, and potassium. It also has some copper, choline, phosphours, magnesium, calcium, and selenium, and other B vitamins. Wow.

Kale is also a nutrition superstar in its own right, but it costs more. But try to get it once in a while as budget permits. Since you are not likely to find kale at low cost restaurants, you have to learn how to cook kale at home.

One cooked cup of kale has ...

  • 1062 mcg of vitamin K, or equivalent to 1328% of the DV (daily value)
  • 9620 IU of vitamin A (192% DV)
  • 53 mg of vitamin C (89% DV)

It has important mineral like magnesium. Kale is both a "leafy green" and a "cruciferous" vegetable. Its vitamin B6 and folate help with the methylation process. You don't have to know what that is. But you need good methylation to be healthy.

There are many other vegetables that are priced in between, so just grab as wide a variety as your budget can allow. Definitely get some leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables. That includes chards and broccoli.

The only problem is that vegetables by themselves do not provide enough calories. A person who is working two jobs (likely to be high manual labor intensive jobs) to have barely enough money to buy food is not going to be able to get enough calories from vegetables alone.

Hence the next category, starch, is needed.

Safe Starch

The low-carb movement is gaining popularity and I would agree that a high-carb diet is unhealthy. However, having some carbs (especially safe starches) is perfectly fine for those who are not diabetics. Among the three macronutrients (which are carbohydrates, protein, and fat), carbohydrates are the least expensive. In other words, you can buy more calories of carbohydrates with less money than buying protein and healthy fats.

Sure healthy fats like olive oil and olives are not that expensive, but how much of that you have to eat to fill you up. But a starch like rice or potatoes give you calories and fill you up. When you are on a limited budget for food, you are going to hungry. When you body is hungry it is telling you that it requires some calorie or certain nutrient is missing. So if we are going to be designing a nutritionally sufficient diet, that diet can not leave people feeling hungry.

The starch of choice "safe starch" which includes white rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, taro. Many of these are root vegetables and are quite inexpensive. The term "safe starch" is used in the Perfect Health Diet as being low in anti-nutrients or toxin. The foods mentions fills this category because they do not contain gluten which many people are sensitive to. White flour, breads, and pasta are not safe starches because they contain gluten and are not as nutritious because they are refined and processed.

Sweet potatoes are particularly high in nutrients. It contains lots of vitamin A and C and other nutrients. But it has amazing amount of important anti-oxidant known as beta-carotene. Purple-fleshed sweet potato contain the anti-oxidant anthocyanins.

It is not ideal to have too much starch as it increases blood sugar and insulin which give rise to obesity. While, rice and potatoes are starch that turns into sugar and does spike blood sugar, they are natural food that do not increase blood sugar as much as white bread, pasta, or sugary drinks.

The amount that you can eat in this category is dictated by your amount of glucose tolerance. If you are diabetic, then you can only eat very little in this category otherwise it causes your diabetes to become worst. If you are pre-diabetic, you should also limit this category. But if you are normal weight and have normal blood sugar, this category may be a source of calories if you are on a tight budget.

The best way to determine your glucose tolerance and to see how much starch you can safely eat is to measure your blood sugar with a glucometer post-meal to see how much your blood sugar raised. If it is too high, you ate too much carbohydrate for you metabolism. But of course, people on a budget would not be able to afford a glucometer. Well, they may be able the afford a glucometer (at $10 for device), the problem is that each single-use test strip can cost up to a $1 each. So that money should should probably go to buying healthier foods instead.

For potatoes, ideally you want organic because they do spay a lot of chemicals on potatoes. But if you are in the situation mentioned, you are not going to be able to afford that and would have to forgo that.

Protein: Eggs and Liver

Eggs are a nutritional powerhouse. They contain all the nutrients to build life of a chick. They contain all of the 9 essential amino acids. It is one of the few foods that contains choline.

I've written about the health benefits of eggs in a previous article, so I won't go over it again here.

However, some people are allergic or sensitive to eggs. If you can not eat egg, liver is a good alternative. Chris Kresser writes that liver is nature's most potent superfood.

Liver also contains choline as well as all of the 9 essential amino acids. Liver also is a natural source of Coenzyme-Q10. Do you even know how much the supplement Coenzyem-Q10 cost in store shelves? It is one of the more expensive supplements out there. For people on a budget, they certainly are not going to buy supplements, eat liver instead.

For those who can eat both eggs and liver, you can mix it up and get some variety. Both is a source of vitamin B12.

Becasue both eggs and liver contain all of the 9 essential amino acids, they are known as "complete proteins" and provide the protein portion of this diet. On a per pound basis, eggs and liver cost less than steak and are more nutritionally dense than steak. In other words, they have more variety of nutrients than steak.

Seafood: Canned Sardines

Seafood is an source of essential omega-3 fatty acid in the diet. Eggs from pastured raised chickens and meats from grass-fed meat may contain some omega-3, but this level of omega-3 plummets if they are not pastured or grass-fed. Since people on a budget is not eating the pastured rasied and grass-feed anything, eggs and liver are not a reliable source of omega-3.

But seafood is. However, fresh fish is extremely expensive. Even frozen fish may be out of the price range of our diet. Canned sardine may be a good source. They are low in mercury becasue they are small fishes that do not bio-accumulate mercury as much as larger fish. You can actually find wild sardine in canned form. Wild fish is better than farmed fish.

Sardine also contain edible bones. Eat those for the calcium.

Sardine also provides some vitamin D. But really, it is not going to be enough. You have to get out in the sun to get adequate amounts of vitamin D.

Health Fats: Coconut

This is the whole coconut where you punch a hole in the shell and drink the juice inside for its magnesium, potassium, sodium, calcium, and other electrolytes. While some vegetables does give a source of magnesium, it doesn't hurt to get a bit more magnesium (most people are probably a bit deficient).

Coconut water is a bit high in sugar, so the beverage of choice should be water. But once in a while get a coconut. You can then eat the coconut meat inside which is high in saturated fat. This fat is natural fat and is not the harmful saturated trans fat that you find in donuts and deep fried food.

In the book "The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth: The Surprising, Unbiased Truth About What You Should Eat and Why", says on page 10 ...

"Saturated fat is not always bad. Some forms of saturated fat -- for example, the kind in coconut -- are very healthy."

Coconut, cabbage, eggs, liver, garlic, and brocolli are all listed in this book.

So coconut fat is healthy and for tight-budget individuals this is a source of calorie. On a per cent basis, you can get a good amount of calorie for the price.

Fat and carbohydrates are a source of energy. Extra virgin olive oil on your vegetables is also a good option.

Once in a while when you have a bit of extra funds and feel like splurging a little, get some olives and avocados. They are monounsaturated fats which are even healthier than saturated fat in coconuts. But of course they are more expensive. Olives you get so little of it for the price. One avocado can cost up to $2.00 each (although some can be found for as little as $0.33 each).

Throw in some extra

Feel free to throw in a touch of salt and pepper. These are not that expensive and you don't have to use a lot.

Garlic can be thrown into everything for spice. It is anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal. While on a per pound basic, garlic is rather expensive. But who needs a pound of garlic. Since you just need a little garlic, the cost is not prohibitive. Also try using ginger and onions too.

I haven't talked much about fruits, because I think vegetables are a better choice for it nutrients and lower sugar. But maybe once in a while you can throw in a banana. It contains potassium and also a source of fuel from its higher carbohydrate content. But not too much as it will cause blood sugar rise. While I feel that berries are the best fruits to eat, but they are more expensive.


This article was written in March 2014 and is only opinion at the time of writing. I am not a nutritionist. I did not calculate the price of this type of diet because prices depends on where you are in the world and I leave it as an exercise to the reader to perform this calculation.


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