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Eat & Grow Rich
Live like a King on a Poor Man's Budget
The average American today can enjoy a far more varied, nutritious, and delicious diet than the richest, most powerful people of previous eras. Kings of old would envy our choices at the supermarket. In fact, there are few culinary delights available to the super-rich that aren’t equally accessible to us serfs. A $1,000 bottle of wine is only slightly better than a $15 bottle, and Jeff Bezos probably eats the same steak that you and I can buy at Whole Foods for $12/pound.
We are surrounded by abundance, and yet most Americans remain stuck in a scarcity mentality when it comes to food. We swing between guilt and pleasure—willpower and appetite—as we binge on junk and then restrict ourselves to starvation diets that are always doomed to fail. Diet culture is ironically a product of an overabundance of calories that crowds out the good stuff with cheap, commodified, food-like substances. The Agricultural-Industrial Complex churns out commodified food-like substances out of a few subsidized staples (i.e., corn, soy, wheat, and rice) and we can’t refuse the temptation to gobble them up at bargain prices.
Wealth and poverty are both mindsets. The real inequality is between those who have mastered their appetite versus those who are still slaves to it. Almost everyone can afford to eat nutritious and highly-rewarding foods for just a fraction of what people spent on food just a few decades ago in real dollars. The changes in consumption patterns partly reflect the fact that we spend more on restaurants, but are mostly a product of scrimping at the grocery store. The share of per capita disposable income spent on food at home has fallen from 14% to under 6% since 1960.
You could say that this is natural for a society that is getting richer. We spend more on leisure and entertainment, and less on essentials. But when you consider the facts of our obesity epidemic—which paradoxically arises from overconsumption of cheap, nutrient-void calories—it seems that we are squandering our hard-earned wealth. Now is the time to get back to basics and invest in quality food, or else nature will extract her price in the form of future medical bills.
By historical standards, most of us are eating like paupers when we should be eating like kings. $6 for dozen pasture-raised eggs or $5 for a pound of grass-fed beef might sound expensive. But let’s imagine you just had $10 per day to spend on food—less than 5% of the average American’s daily income. On that budget, you could still meet your daily caloric needs by eating just high-quality grass-fed beef (2 lbs. = 2,200 calories).
Of course, most of us want more variety in our diets. But most of us can also afford to spend more than 5% of our income on food. The current average for Americans is around 10% of disposable income, but in 1960 it was almost 20%. If the average American spent 20% of his budget on food again, that would give him $40 to spend per day, which I daresay is enough to eat far better than ancient nobility.
Today, for example, we take spices for granted. They are cheap and abundant. But 500 years ago, rulers sent armies to war to defend spice routes just so they could add pepper to their otherwise bland meals.
There is good, inexpensive, untainted food available if you know where to look. I used to advertise a PDF giveaway called “Poor Man’s Paleo,” but I’ve had to rethink many of my paleo principles over the past few years. In the paleolithic era, our ancestors learned to survive despite scarcity. In modern times, we must learn to thrive amid abundance!
What follows are my updated recommendations for eating like a king for $10 a day or less – aka “The Deluxe Diet.” These are preliminary guidelines for buying and preparing deluxe meals with minimal cooking expertise, and I hope you find them worth the read.
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Rebuilding the Food Pyramid
Much like the Great Pyramids of Egypt were to the ancient world, the USDA food pyramid is a perfect symbol of the modern-day grain cult that keeps people docile and fed—filled up on empty carbs. The USDA guidelines present an almost perfect inversion of the ideal.
The small, upper tier made up of meat, eggs, and dairy, ought to be at the foundation, not the top of the pyramid. Cereal grains should be an accessory.
I rebuilt the food pyramid in the shape of a compass, to help you navigate to better health within your budget.
The core of the compass is meat, fish, and eggs. These are the essentials of a nourishing diet. Whereas it’s rare to see a vegan who is also the picture of health, it’s the norm for carnivores to be lean and supple. Contrary to the vegetarian-leaning medical establishment, many people thrive on a keto carnivore-style diet, where the vast majority of calories come not only from animal products but from meat.
However, we need not restrict ourselves. Man does not live on meat (nor bread) alone.
This core can be liberally supplemented with a variety of plant and animal products—from fruit and full-fat dairy to root vegetables and greens, grains, plus select quantities of nuts, seeds, grains, and other “hormetic vices.”
Even sugar and added fats—the “use sparingly” category in the old pyramid—have their place. For a King, nothing is off-limits, and these too can be consumed in relative abundance, as long as you are aware of the hormonal effects of various macronutrients. The basic principle of hormonally-intelligent eating is to separate your carbs and fat, and not eat a whole bunch of both in a single meal for reasons that I explain in my Hormone Optimization 101 article.
Let’s start with a review of the core nutrients.
Meat, Eggs, and Fish
Humans have been eating meat, and lots of it, for thousands of years without problems. It would be rather odd if we had any major sensitivities or allergies to meat, given our evolutionary past.
Meat seems expensive, but adjusting for nutrient density, beef, pork, chicken, and most kinds of fish are cheap compared to most vegetables, which contain relatively few nutrients and calories. Sure, 1,000 calories of rice are cheaper than 1,000 calories of beef. A large donut delivers 400 calories for a dollar, and a large McDonald’s french fries gives you 500 calories for under $2. But as I noted above, you can eat your fill of meat for around $10/day—less if you’re able to support your local rancher, buying a quarter of an entire cow and storing it in a deep freezer. Furthermore, a pound of meat will fill you up, while a donut or french fries will leave you craving more, more, MORE!!
Butcher shops sell grass-fed liver for around $3 per pound. Bones cost even less, and can be used to make bone broth super-stews that keep you nourished between meals or while practicing intermittent fasting.
Eggs provide a nutrient profile that is almost as good as chicken or beef and for about half the price per serving. A dozen eggs contain 1,000 calories and 72 grams of protein. Paying extra for good-quality eggs is worth it. can turn them into even more of a deluxe treat. Free-range or pasture-raised eggs just cost a dollar or two more than eggs from caged hens, and have noticeably darker yolks, indicating a better diet for the chickens. Watch out for “vegetarian fed,” since chickens should ideally eat worms and insects. Best of all is “growing” your own eggs with a backyard chicken coop. Just build it, give them feed and water, and you have a steady, cheap supply of eggs. A small investment will pay you a lifelong annuity of eggs.
I feel like nobility whenever I eat a soft-boiled egg with pink Himalayan salt and cracked black pepper. Once you learn to fry eggs with an appropriate helping of butter (~1/2 tbsp. per egg), you realize how deluxe a simple 3-egg breakfast can be. [Note: If you have to scour your pan after cooking eggs, you probably didn’t use enough butter.]
You can spend as little or as much as you want on fish. Some of the most expensive kinds are not any healthier than the $2 cans of sardines from Costco. A can of sardines contains a whopping 15–20g of protein, plus 9g of healthy omega-3 fat — the same fats that helped humans evolve their advanced brains. They have no added sweeteners, antibiotics, or synthetic hormones. Some brands, like Wild Planet™, advertise being “sustainably caught,” meaning they aren’t depleting any fisheries in the process.
When buying canned fish, make sure that it’s stored in 100% olive oil or water—not Canola as is often the case. It’s also important to find cans without the endocrine-disrupting chemical BPA. Trader Joe’s brand sardines, for example, have BPA plastic lining in the can. They also taste like garbage. Skip!
The Crown Prince smoked oysters sold at TJ’s, however, are delicious (and a superfood at that). I eat them in a spicy cabbage salad at least once per week.
Tune is another affordable fish, when canned. Fresh or frozen is a real luxury, and often worth the price. The trade-off is that tuna contains higher levels of mercury, so you don’t want to eat it too often.
I stay away from farmed fish these days, given that they’re fed mostly soy and corn, and given unhealthy levels of antibiotics to keep them alive in such cramped, unnatural conditions. As with chickens, you are what [what you eat] eats. It’s also better Karma to spend a bit extra on wild-caught (or pasture-raised in the case of chickens), where the animal lives a happy life with just one bad day.
Full Fat Dairy & Healthy Fats
Moving to the outer rings, full-fat dairy is a fantastic way to improve the taste and make your meat budget go further.
I buy Kerrygold Grassfed butter from Costco in 4-packs – 32 oz. for under $30. A thick pat of butter (1 tbsp.) with two eggs in the morning makes a deluxe, nutrient-rich breakfast for under $1. Supplementing your meat with liberal portions of butter is a great way to add delicious flavor, and get your body into fat-burning mode.
The same goes for coconut, avocado, and olive oil, which are very cheap when purchased in bulk. Not all added fats are created equal, though. Vegetable oils, which are mostly derived from plant seeds or soybeans, are anathema. Like bulk grains, seed oils are inexpensive and easy to store and transport, making them an ideal ingredient for ultra-processed commodity-food. However, they are not fit for human consumption—and especially not for royalty.
Avocados, olives, and coconuts are, interestingly enough, all fruits that grow in a Mediterranean climate. They are higher in saturated and monounsaturated fat, which makes them much more stable and less likely to wreak havoc on your cells than vegetable and seed oils, which are higher in chemically-unstable polyunsaturated fats.
Yogurt, sour cream, and cheeses all fall into the category of cultured dairy. Rich in protein, vitamins, and healthy saturated fats, I eat these with just about every meal. My wife makes delicious yogurt using nothing but a gallon of organic milk, an InstantPot, and a dollop of a previous batch of yogurt as the starting culture. Sour cream is cheaper than most yogurt and makes an excellent base for a side-sauce, when mixed with other condiments like Sriracha, horseradish, etc.
If you can’t find full-fat yogurt or cottage cheese, due to the prominence of the low-fat cult, you can always buy heavy cream in bulk and add it to the low-fat version. Heavy cream also makes coffee or tea into a deluxe treat, and helps balance the caffeine spike over a longer period of time.
Eating high-fat will generally not result in weight gain if it is coupled with a very low-carb lifestyle. See my post about Hormone Optimization 101 to understand why it’s important to keep high-fat and high-carb meals distinct from one another, and to generally default to high-fat if you are trying to lose weight or reverse any kind of metabolic syndrome.
However, there are exceptions to the hormone optimization protocol. Hormones are complex and it’s hard to boil the rules of optimization down to any single axis. In my paleo days, I advised cutting sugar by a 10x factor from average American levels. Now I think it’s a bit more complicated.
Once upon a time, I used to believe all of the propaganda about fat being the enemy. Then I learned the truth: that cholesterol is an essential building block for our cells, and that saturated fat found in meat, cheese, etc. is healthy for most people. It was sugar that was the enemy, I learned.
But what if, in fact, I was just replacing one tired dogma with another?
What if sugar—even white sugar—could be safely incorporated into one’s diet? Now there’s some real galaxy brain deluxe potential.
Enter Ray Peat, the recently deceased dietary guru who drank his coffee with several teaspoons of cream and sugar, along with pulp-free orange juice. Peat is known in esoteric health circles for promoting ice cream as the perfect food – eggs, cream, and sugar; protein, fat, and sugar, living in cool harmony right there in your freezer.
His thesis comes from a particular understanding of bioenergetics—i.e., how our cells transform energy. In Peat’s view, certain foods—including sugar—tend to speed up energy metabolism.
I don’t agree with the Peatians about everything. I think Peat was wrong about the inherent negativity of stresses associated with fasting and ketogenic diets. Yes, they force the body to create energy through less efficient pathways than standard glucose-burning, but the stress tends to be hormetic so long as it is periodic rather than permanent.
However, I’ve experimented with the Ray Peat diet—drinking orange juice in the morning, honey with my coffee/tea, and eating ice cream in the evening, and I can report that I experienced higher (albeit somewhat uneven) energy levels. I may have gained a few pounds of body fat, but not nearly as much as I thought I would, due to the amount of extra energy I burned.
This has led me to conclude that sugar is not the poisonous culprit and root cause of obesity we thought it was. More likely, industrial seed oils and other sources of oxidative stress are what’s killing the body’s natural ability to modulate energy intake and energy expenditure.
Peat was also vocal critic of PUFAs—polyunsaturated fats—which are the primary kind found in Canola, soybean, and other seed and vegetable oils used in virtually all fried and processed foods. If you’re going to focus your willpower on eliminating one thing, make it seed oils—not ice cream or sugar, which are both compatible with a healthy metabolism.
Fruit may not be strictly “paleo” but loads of former paleo and even carnivore purists are re-discovering the joys and health benefits of fruit.
There are inexpensive produce delivery options like Imperfect Foods (formerly Imperfect Produce), but I prefer picking fruit out at the grocery store.
A friend of mine jokes that Costco bananas are basically free. I think they’re something like 5 cents each. Berries are more deluxe in my book, and I enjoy them frozen or thawed from frozen enough for it to be worth the savings. When I’m feeling rich I’ll buy the crates of fresh blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, but that can quickly eat into your budget.
There are different schools of thought on why vegetables are important. One says they are nutritious and should form the base of a healthy diet. The other says that the health benefits are primarily derived from the mild hormetic stress of certain phytochemicals which are toxic in larger quantities. This latter view frames plants as medicines, where the dose determines whether the net effect is beneficial or harmful.
I fall somewhere in between. In some sense, hardcore carnivores have shown that vegetables are superfluous. But most people enjoy them, and whether the benefits are coming from the nutrients or anti-nutrients is really just a question of the dose. Don’t spend a ton on a variety of fresh vegetables that will go bad before you can cook them.
Per Ray Peat’s recommendations, I eat a carrot a day, which helps the body detoxify from excess estrogen. Cruciferous vegetables are a good pair with cooked meats because they tend to absorb some of the carcinogenic particles that result from charring (and who doesn’t like a little char on their steak?). One of my favorite vegetable recipes is the New York Times Cauliflower Shawarma with spicy tahini, for the liberal quantities of oil and spices it contains.
Starchy roots like potatoes and sweet potatoes must have their place in the pantry. As do onions. My Twitter pal, Case Bradford, is a master of the creative use of the purple sweet potato as a bun for bratwurst. It’s actually surprisingly good, and incredibly nutrient dense.
Frozen vegetables are another luxury of modern capitalism that make it possible to preserve the freshness of peak ripeness, until the moment you are ready to prepare them. Too many leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale, however, can lead to the accumulation of oxalates, which in turn leads to kidney stones in the extreme case. Plus, greens are expensive! Thus, when I’m making salads, I tend to think of the greens as one ingredient among many – a delivery mechanism for the more nutrient-dense components like salad dressing, olives, cheeses, oysters, meat, etc. I coined the term “synergy salad” to describe the combination of foods that are insufficient on their own (i.e., as snacks), but which add to more than the sum of their parts.
Snacking is like grazing. Humans are not designed to be constantly digesting food. Snacking also feeds our cravings for instant gratification and makes our food bills go up. Take time to experiment and get used to combining your favorite ingredients into hearty meals.
Grains & Other Vices
The obsession with grains, and whole grains in particular, is quite outdated. Any nutritionist worth his salt will tell you to cut wheat out if you have any question about gluten sensitivity. Glutinous grains should only be added back into a diet after a period of abstinence, and carefully, to see if they might be creating a low-level immune response found in a large percentage of the population.
It’s quite amazing that humans adapted so well to their grain-fed slavery given the number of defense mechanisms that grains employ against being digested.
With that said, I enjoy a slice of warm sourdough and have found that I can tolerate it in moderation in the same way that I can tolerate alcohol, coffee, and other delightful poisons. I call these the “hormetic vices” because their primary benefit comes from a controlled dose of something that is harmful in greater quantities.
On this front, I say experiment with different grains and see how your body responds. Mine seems to tolerate gluten-free grains like rice and corn with some regularity, as long as I return to a high-fat diet.
As consumers of cheap, addictive foods, we’re over-fed and undernourished. It’s easier to eat cheap snacks and go out to eat than prepare a hearty balanced meal with micro- and macronutrients that complement each other and leave you actually feeling full. But modern consumers have a choice. We have set before us the ways of life and of death; blessings and curses.
The default is to overspend on borderline poisons—processed foods and restaurant fare soaked in seed oils. However, there is good, inexpensive, and untainted food available if you know where to look and are willing to put the time into preparing it well.
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