Can You Afford To Eat Low Carb?

I hear it often: "How can I afford to eat low carb? It's so expensive!" My unvarying response is "Any food that makes you fat, tired, sick, and hungry wouldn't be cheap if they were giving it away."

But is low carb food really so expensive? Where are Americans actually spending their food dollars?

Turns out they're spending it on exactly the stuff we should be whacking out of our diets. Take a look.

As a nation we are actually spending substantially less of our incomes on food than we were thirty years ago -- about 13% in 1982, but in the neighborhood of 8% now. Back then, we were spending 31% of our food budget on meat. That has dropped to 21.5%. In the meanwhile, processed foods and sweets have soared from 11.6% of the American food budget to 22.9%. This suggests, of course, a very simple strategy: Axe all the processed food and sweets from your budget, and you should have enough money for meat and vegetables.

I should insert here that along with the proliferation of processed crap, this shift in percentage of dollars spent also reflects a big drop in meat prices relative to the value of the dollar. Unfortunately, that drop in price is due in great part to confined animal feedlot operations, or CAFOs, huge corporate meat-raising operations that treat animals as objects, but do take advantage of the economies of scale. CAFOS are lousy for the environment, horrific for the animals, and produce meat of questionable quality and safety. I would welcome reforms and regulation in the industry. However, "Meat is so expensive" is not a particularly viable argument, given current meat prices.

Dairy is the other category where spending has dropped appreciably, from 13.2% to 10.6%. I wonder how much of that has to do with fear of dairy and the idea that butterfat is dangerous, how much has to do with the pushing of soy milk (which would, I assume, be in the processed food category -- it certainly should be), and how much with children drinking soda or juice with meals instead of milk. I suspect all of these factor in to the equation.

As for those processed foods, many of you may have cut them out of your own diet while continuing to buy them for the family. Again, the obvious solution is to stop buying them for the family. Your kids don't need Cap'n Crunch, Tater Tots, and Totino's Pizza Rolls any more than you do.

It seems to me that the bigger problem is the weak economy. If your food budget has shrunk by 10%, then the dollar amounts represented by those percentages are smaller, too. Americans also spend far, far more than we used to on services our grandparents never dreamed of -- cell phone service, broadband internet, on-demand television programming, etc, etc, etc. I'm not running these things down; I have them myself. It's just important to realize that these things are likely at least as responsible for the pinch we're all feeling as food prices are.

If you are one of the growing number of people who are refusing to buy meat raised in CAFOS, and are buying locally-raised, grass-fed meat, good on you, and you really are paying high prices for meat. You are likely also paying high prices if you buy all organic produce. For these problems, I can only recommend investing in a big freezer and buying your beef by the half or quarter, gardening if you have the space and the time, and possibly back-yard chicken farming. I love my chickens. Oh, and shopping the local farmer's market right before it closes -- you may well get a deal on produce the farmer doesn't want to haul home, unsold.

But if you, like so many, are doing your shopping at the local grocery store, "Low carb food is so expensive" doesn't fly.