Friday, June 13, 2014

Protein On A Budget

Protein is one of the nutrients essential for life.  For example, your body is made of protein.  It's not just in your muscles--protein makes up your organs, your red blood cells, your enzymes, etc.  Studies have shown that humans require approximately 10% of their calories from protein in order to maintain a baseline level of health.  However, if you are working to actively increase muscle mass, you need more: 20 to 30% of calories.

Protein is also helpful because it is known to be very satiating.  Think about potato chips.  You could fairly easily knock back 600 calories of chips without really realizing it, or even feeling very full, right?  I know I could--and have.  On the other hand, think about eating 600 calories of tuna--that's 3 to 4 cans.  You would soon eat your fill.  Your stomach feels satisfied, so overall it's easy to maintain a moderate calorie intake.  Also, protein-rich foods are generally not as processed as carbohydrate-rich ones, unless you're consuming lots of protein powders.

However, think about prime rib.  And lobster.  And sushi.  What do these have in common?  $$$$  Animal-based foods are generally more costly to produce than plant-based ones, so some sources of quality protein can be expensive.

What to do if you're on a budget?

As an exercise, I went shopping at my local Trader Joe's and purchased the foods that I normally consume.  I calculated the overall cost per gram of protein, and sorted everything into a handy table.

Item Cost serving size serv/package g protein/serving g protein/package cost per gram
lentils (dry) 1.69 1/4 C 9 12 108 0.02
peanuts 3.29 1/4 C 16 7 112 0.03
turkey burgers 2.99 4 oz 4 22 88 0.03
peanut butter* 4.99 2 T 14 8 112 0.04
canned beans* 1.19 1/2 C 3.5 7 24.5 0.05
sharp cheddar** 5.49 1 oz 16 7 112 0.05
skipjack tuna 1.49 2 oz 2 14 28 0.05
quick brown rice* 4.49 1/4 C 20 4 80 0.06
chicken thighs* 4.99 4 oz 4 22 88 0.06
cashews 4.99 1/4 C 15 5 75 0.07
ground beef** 5.99 4 oz 4 20 80 0.07
pastrami 4.99 2 oz 4 13 52 0.10
Greens+protein bar 2.29 1 bar 1 15 15 0.15
*Organically produced
**Grass-fed cows

The winners?  Legumes!  The losers?  Processed foods!  Let's take a closer look at these results, eh?

I was actually a little bit surprised to see lentils there at the top, at only 2 cents per gram of protein.  What's awesome about this is the fact that lentils are also a useful source of iron for vegetarians, plus have some great minerals and lots of fiber.  As we know, vegetable sources of protein are incomplete; they don't contain all of the essential amino acids.  However, legumes + grains = complete protein.  If you're avoiding grains for whatever reason, legumes can also be combined with dairy products, as all animal-produced protein is complete.  Lentils have a great shelf life, they're easy to cook because they don't require soaking (though they can take some time to soften if they're particular old.  If your looking to balance your blood sugars, legumes are low on the Glycemic Index, which means that their fabulous carbohydrates are more slowly absorbed into your blood stream.  So they're winners all around!

Next on the legume list, peanuts!  I'm going to lump peanuts in with tree nuts to make a point.  Now, here is one place where I diverge from some folks in the vegetarian/vegan contingent.  They like to say that nuts are a great source of protein.  Nuts are actually a great source of fat, with some protein coming along for the ride.  Nuts and peanuts are part of a healthy diet, but I personally try to limit my daily consumption to 1 or 2 servings, simply because of the fat content.

I'd like to take a moment to say that the frozen turkey burgers are awesome and convenient and tasty.  I can cook one up quickly and throw on top of some lettuce for a burger salad, which makes an easy lunch to pack and bring in to work.  Cheese was also interesting to see in its place on the list.  This particular grass-fed New Zealand sharp cheddar might be more price that some of TJ's other offerings, so other varieties could be even more economical.  From some of my readings about Victorian class consciousness, the upper classes did not eat cheese at their meals simply because it was economical and nourishing--and therefore a food eaten by the lower classes.

Take a look at the way that the cost per gram shoots up from ground beef to pastrami--both cow products, but one is specially processed into a different food.  As my dear friend Scottish Morn noticed, even though she's buying fancy produce at the farmers' market every week, she's overall spending less money on food because she's stopped buying lots of packaged, processed goods.  The protein bar is another stark example of this.  Sure, it's convenient to grab and go, but it's definitely not economical compared to the whole foods.  Of course, there are a lot of cheaper protein bars at TJ's, but they are full of things I refuse to put into my body.

I know this list could be expanded, but it is at least a start.  Try it with the foods you normally buy--you'll hopefully be able to transition your buying habits to maximize both economy and nutrition!

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