How to Make An Ancestral Diet Affordable

This post is authored by blog contributor and new writing intern Andrew Graham. Andrew is a friend of the team and is as passionate about ancestral health as we are. We are excited to share this piece from Andrew and we can't wait to see what else he has in store for you over the coming months!

Disclaimer: If you are on a therapeutic diet under the direction of a practitioner, some of these tips may not apply. Strict adherence is often necessary. Always consult your practitioner before making dietary changes.

Whether you are just getting started trying to shift your dietary choices to a more ancestral approach, or whether you’ve been living this way for a while, it’s possible that you’ve worried about the financial costs of eating this way. Maybe you’re motivated to eat a more evolutionarily-aligned diet, but anxiety kicks in every time the total comes up at the Whole Foods check-out. Or maybe you would just like to be able to whittle down your spending, but don’t want to have to sacrifice nutritional quality by purchasing cheap foods.

I must admit, I don’t love the title of this article. It implies that an ancestral diet is inherently “expensive”. But I don’t believe that has to be true. Eating out regularly is expensive. Paying for medications and healthcare bills fueled by poor diet and lifestyle choices is expensive. Eating the natural plants and animals of the Earth that have been consumed for millions of years shouldn’t be.

However, there is still a way to overspend on an ancestral diet. Unfortunately, many natural food companies or alternative healthcare providers—though well-intentioned—have promoted the idea that the only way to be healthy in this modern world is to eat 100% organic, only buy pasture-raised eggs, and avoid any and all GMOs. While there is benefit to doing these things, I believe it is dangerous to make people think it’s essential. That is an anxiety-inducing message rather than an empowering message. On the other hand, an empowering message—one that I hope you’ll gain from this brief article—is this: keep it simple, eat whole foods, cook at home, and spend what you can afford. Simply applying those principles will get you really, really far.

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The health foods market is incredibly saturated with products claiming to revolutionize your health. Many of them are fantastic. But there is a balance between not spending enough to get the quality types of food that will fuel good health, and overspending on sometimes unnecessary organic superfoods. Coming from someone who is still going through school, I’m constantly making sure I fall on the right side of that spectrum. My wife and I have been eating this way for a while, and we don’t have a ton of money lying around. But I can tell you this: even for poor students, it’s doable.

Here 8 simple tips for you to get the most out of your dollars. Some are specific for ancestral eating while others are general grocery shopping/meal planning principles. Regardless, if you apply any or all of them, you will start saving money immediately! In addition, you might improve your health as a beneficial side effect.

1. Prioritize food categories over descriptors

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors—and likely even our grandparents’ generation—lived a life where the terms “organic”, “non-GMO”, “grass-fed” and “free-range” didn’t exist. They didn’t need to exist. Humans evolved in a world connected to their food: 100% wild, organic, fresh, straight from nature. As part of an ancestral approach to eating and living, eating organic foods is a way we can come closer to the pre-modern human environment.

However, there should be a hierarchy of priorities when we think about what foods to purchase to best optimize our nutrition. Along with eating organic, our ancestors didn’t consumed refined sugar, refined grains, vegetable oils, or any packaged or processed foods. Purchasing the types of foods they ate—fruits, vegetables, meat, etc—should come before the quality of those foods, as important as that is as well. If you don’t have the extra money, don’t sweat buying everything organic. Consider using the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen” to prioritize which produce to buy organic. Buy organic eggs and meat when possible.

2. Consider alternatives to Whole Foods, Sprouts, etc.

Whole Foods and similar health food stores are fantastic. They have more options for special dietary needs than anywhere else, and tremendous food quality. With that being said, they aren’t the only options for buying good, healthy food. They’re expensive, and I rarely ever go, as much as I love them. We shop at our local WinCo (if you have one nearby, I’d highly recommend it. They really should have compensated me by now for how many friends I’ve convinced). WinCo provides our staples: vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, rice (OK for many!), spices and seasonings, coconut milk, and coconut oil, among other things. We supplement this with occasional Thrive Market orders to get more speciality items such as red palm oil, ghee, EPIC bars, coconut aminos, etc. You may only need an occasional trip to the health food store.

3. Don’t (necessarily) worry about perfection

Eating an ancestral diet doesn’t mean perfectly emulating hunter-gatherers. I know they didn’t consume dark chocolate, but I’m not about to give that up! And in the previous tip, I mentioned that we regularly buy white rice, which can be fine for many people. We’ll also often have some corn chips, potatoes, and a few other non-Paleo/questionably-Paleo foods. I’ve found that, for me, it’s okay to have these foods from time to time.

I am careful not to eat them frequently enough to sacrifice my health (I definitely can eat my way into problems), but including small amounts of these foods in my diet right now saves money as well as keeps my diet flexible and varied. In the future, if I have more disposable income I may elect to replace the corn chips with grain-free chips, and to switch over to taro and yucca roots over potatoes.

But for now, they are acceptable (and cheap!) parts of an imperfect yet healthy diet.

With that being said, it may be that, in your situation, you need to be more strict than I am. If your practitioner has you on a therapeutic diet this may not apply to you, as strict adherence is often necessary for desired outcomes.

4. Limit eating out

This isn’t exclusive to someone trying to eat ancestrally, nor is it remarkably unique advice, but holy cow it’s a game-changer! No matter where you go out to eat (I am looking at you, McDonald’s), no matter what great deals you may find, eating out even a few times a week will almost always rack up your food spending, usually more than anything else. I’ve been more aware of my budget since getting married, and am continually amazed by how expensive eating out, even at “cheaper” locations, ends up being. In order to save money and make ancestral eating an affordable eating pattern, eating out must be limited. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love eating out. Trying new restaurants and just being in that social atmosphere is almost universally loved, and I’m no exception. But let’s face it, restaurants aren’t very ancestral: eating out is an institution of modernity, and restaurants often use cheap ingredients. It’s something I love to do, but something I work to limit each and every week.

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5. Buy cheap cuts of meat

I haven’t bought a steak in months. We know that our ancestors ate “nose-to-tail”, and so buying certain cuts of muscle meat again and again may not be optimal for your health or your wallet. We like to mix it up and go for the ground beef, chuck roast, rump roast, and occasionally brisket (as a Texan, I must endorse brisket consumption as a critical ingredient of a healthy diet). As I mentioned on the first tip, buying organic or grass-fed isn’t always a necessity, but one benefit of going for cheaper cuts of meat is that we find grass-fed to be affordable. Organ meats are also decently priced, and obviously powerhouse sources of nutrition that our ancestors would regularly consume.

6. Buy in bulk, and keep it simple

Maybe this goes without saying, but buying in bulk is key if you aren’t already doing it. Frozen fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and other foods can often be purchased in larger quantities upfront to save money in the long run. Even if it makes your bill expensive one week, if it’s cheaper per ounce or per unit, it’s usually worth it! Just make sure you don’t burn through it faster than you would otherwise just because you have more on-hand.

After you’ve bought the staples of your diet in bulk where possible, try and keep the number of ingredients you buy to a reasonable amount. It seems that very often in the Paleo/ancestral health community people want to make every meal based on an extravagant recipe with a laundry list of specialized (and often expensive) ingredients. While portobello mushroom burgers topped with bacon served alongside cauliflower rice and sweet potato fries is an incredible meal, it can be helpful to limit these kinds of meals, or save them for special occasions. Keep it simple throughout the week. We will often make some meat in the crockpot along with a veggie and some potatoes, and eat that for several days. I love when we do occasionally have a special meal, but it saves us a lot of time and money to keep things simple and use our bulk ingredients regularly.

7. Limit snacks

Snacks can be expensive. Unfortunately, healthier snack choices like beef jerky and nuts tend to be far more pricey than common snacks like chips or granola bars. It may be worth asking yourself if the snacks you’re buying are necessary. It may very well be that for you they are. For many people who have high activity days, healthy snacks are an important part of what keeps them going. Others who may have suboptimal HPA-axis function or other issues may find an occasional snack keeps them feeling best.

However, the majority of our hunter-gatherer ancestors likely weren’t eating nearly as frequently as we are today. Studies are showing that, for many people, practices like intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding are valuable. It may be that eating less frequently is also more valuable for your budget, as meals based around whole foods tend to be more affordable than Paleo-friendly snacks.

8. Reframe nutrition as an investment, not a cost

Can you afford not to eat this way? That’s the way I think when I sometimes get flustered and wish we could go for the ramen and other dirt-cheap pre-packaged foods. I simply can’t afford to do that, and I don’t want to! I know that with every dollar I put into these nutrient-dense foods, I’m actually investing in the health of myself and my family. I’m investing dollars into living better now, with more energy and vitality. And I’m investing in disease-free, vibrant later years to spend with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Some people may feel fine eating mostly crappy foods for now, but the time usually comes when it catches up with them. I can try and save money in less important areas, such as spending less on entertainment and other unnecessary products.

I hope this article was helpful to you as you begin, or continue, your health journey. I know how powerful this approach can be, but we must be reasonable and careful not to go over-the-top. I’m always looking for more ways to shave my costs, so please feel free to share any additional tips you’ve found helpful!

Andrew Graham