Today I’m going to be tackling a topic that has been a long time coming in the AIP community: how to proceed with a healing, nutrient-dense diet when it is either difficult or impossible to do so financially.
As a part of our continued focus on equity here at Autoimmune Wellness, we have come to recognize that food security and affordability are both major barriers preventing many with autoimmune disease from seeking healing.
This article is meant to continue the conversation we started in 2018 in The Autoimmune Wellness Podcast Season 3 – Real Food on a Budget. In that eight-episode series Angie and I covered the best practices for finding the highest-quality, healing foods for the lowest price, but only touched briefly on actions or modifications to take if you can’t fit these foods in your budget.
Today, I’m going to break down some further concepts that those with the lowest budgets and most-difficult access to nutrient-dense foods can use for planning, sourcing, and modifying the protocol to suit their situation.
A disclaimer–please remember that talking about budgets and affordability is tricky as every budget situation is unique and every location has its own variables related to sourcing and pricing. I’ve done my best to provide information that is generally helpful, and I recommend using the material here as a starting point. You will likely have to do some research to personalize these recommendations to your situation and locality.
Tip #1: Understand which foods are both affordable and nutrient-dense.
A lot of people believe that the most affordable foods offer the least nutrition. While it is the case that many cheap, processed foods are indeed nutrient-poor, cost and nutrient-density aren’t clearly linked. In fact, some of the most nutrient-dense foods can also be the most affordable.
Understanding which nutrient-dense foods fit your budget is essential to prioritizing your spending to incorporate the most nutrient density for your dollar.
To illustrate this point, I’ve created a chart of meat and seafood proteins comparing them on both nationally-averaged retail cost and nutrient density per 4-ounce servings. I used some of the most common affordable meat cuts, like chicken breast, chicken thighs, ground beef and sirloin steak. I also included some less common, yet still affordable options, like organ meats (chicken heart and beef liver), as well as some seafoods (canned salmon, tuna, and sardines).
I chose these meats and seafoods as they are a good representation of some proteins that those who seek to implement a healing diet on a tight budget might include. The most current national averages from data provided by the USDA and US Bureau of Labor & Statistics as well as research on nationally-available canned seafood options (like Amazon, Costco, etc.) were used.
To layer this cost information with nutrient-density, I included a nutrient comparison with values and color-coding that denote % of DRI for an average-size person for a 4 ounce serving of each specific protein.
Cost & Nutrient-Density Comparison of Meats & Seafoods Chart:
What does this chart show us? Well, the organ meats clearly provide the most “bang for your buck” in both cost and nutrient-density when comparing proteins. While not everyone is interested in eating organ meats, it is important to highlight that they don’t only bring some of the best nutritional benefits, but that they can also be the most affordable source of many hard-to-find and critical nutrients.
Moving on to chicken, the most commonly-eaten meat in the United States: It is clear that even though it is affordable, it actually provides the least nutrient density when compared to these other proteins. Beef, in comparison, offers many more nutrients, especially zinc and B12, for only a slightly higher cost.
Moving on to the most expensive on this chart, I was surprised to find canned bone-in, skin-on pink salmon the most affordable seafood option, followed by tuna and sardines. All three offer fantastic sources of minerals like calcium and selenium, as well as B12, and plenty of those important omega-3 fats.
So given this information, what might a low-cost, nutrient dense approach to sourcing animal and seafood proteins look like? You might forgo some meals with the proteins in the middle (like chicken) in favor of incorporating both organ meats and seafoods. The cost benefit from eating meals including organ meats occasionally may provide some room in the budget to include some of the more expensive seafood options. This is a very simple example of how you might use this information to personalize for your own needs.
How do you apply this thinking to produce? Fruits and vegetables are much more difficult to compare as their prices fluctuate wildly depending on the region in which you live and which season it is. I did find some data comparing national averages for both fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables from the USDA, and compiled this general list of most affordable fruits and vegetables nationwide:
Now, I didn’t include a nutrient comparison for produce as I think that data is a little overwhelming and less actionable when applied to produce. Vegetables, specifically, are critically important nutritionally, especially when implementing a healing diet (you can read more about this topic in Dr. Sarah Ballantyne’s excellent article, The Importance of Vegetables). Included on this list are foods that definitely cover the nutrient-density bases, like greens (spinach), cruciferous veggies (cabbage and cauliflower), and root vegetables (sweet potatoes and carrots). Fruits are also important, as a good source of fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Now that you have an understanding of how to evaluate a food for both cost and nutrient density, let’s move on to where to purchase these foods.
Tip #2: Dial in your sourcing.
Where you buy your food is a huge factor in how much you pay for it, even when an even comparison of specific source or quality is considered.
I learned this recently when I lived in a rural area without a specialty grocer (like Whole Foods). I quickly noticed that the big-box store I had convenient access to (Fred Meyer, which is like Walmart) often sold organic produce, from the exact same distributors/farms, found 45 minutes up the road from me in specialty stores for a half to a third of the price.
How could that be? One factor is that specialty stores charge more as their customers put a higher “perceived value” of food purchased from them, as their marketing is intended to make consumers think that their products are higher quality (which isn’t always the case). In reality, there are many specialty products these stores sell that can’t be found in “regular” or big-box grocers, but the price you pay for getting everything at the specialty store is often higher for all of the other products that they sell.
Here are some sourcing-specific tips:
- Pay attention to which foods are priced low at specific stores in your area, and shop at multiple stores (if the cost savings outweighs the time and travel expense). This might look like getting all of your produce at a big-box store, but getting all of your meat at a supermarket, if that is where prices are consistently the lowest for those items.
- If there is a cost savings to you for doing so, buy in bulk, perhaps using your freezer to store any food you don’t need immediately. This can be a great strategy when meat is on sale, for instance – if you can afford to stock up on a few extra pounds of meat at a sale price, you can store it in your freezer to get the benefit of that savings later. You don’t need to use this strategy at an extreme scale (like buying a whole cow to store in a deep freezer) to see a benefit here.
- Look into membership sellers to see if they will offer you a cost savings that will offset their expense. While you may need to pay a yearly fee, if the savings you get from purchasing certain items specifically from these sources is great it may be worthwhile for you. This includes stores with physical locations like Costco or online like Thrive Market. Thrive has a free 30-day trial, as well as a free membership program for those on a low income (you can learn more about that here).
- Shop online for any items you can’t get locally for a good price. Sometimes the most affordable source of pantry items (like canned fish and shellfish) can be found online, even when shipping is factored in.
It should be noted that those who struggle with food security often do not have access to transportation that would enable them to shop at many stores or go out of their way for more affordable or higher quality ingredients. To add to this, grocery stores in low-income areas often have lower turnover on fresh food (like produce). Some strategies that could be used here are planning larger shopping trips to buy in bulk, shopping online, or prioritizing frozen ingredients when fresh options are not good. If you struggle here, start by figuring out what ingredients are accessible to you, and branch out from there.
Lastly, a note on perfectionism–everyone has a different budget and access to food and perfectionism can definitely hinder those who want to implement a healing diet but feel that their options are not “good enough.” When we look at nutrient density, conventional meat is better than no meat, farmed or canned seafood is better than no seafood, and non-organic vegetables are better than no vegetables (read more about this topic in Angie Alt’s article, I Can’t Try AIP Because I’m a Perfectionist).
Tip #3: Ditch the supplements unless absolutely necessary.
Do not prioritize the purchase of supplements over nutrient-dense, whole foods (unless, of course you are working with a provider and have identified a specific nutrient deficiency that is remedied by supplementation).
I’ve written in the past about the value of getting nutrition from food before considering supplementation in my article Five Reasons You Should Get Your Nutrition from Food Before Supplements. To summarize what I wrote there, real foods are often the most affordable way to get nutrients, they contain cofactors that increase absorption and bioavailability, they contain often overlooked “nutrients” like fiber and phytochemicals, and they are less likely to contain harmful ingredients or fillers. These arguments are further strengthened by the consideration of limited financial resources.
The cost of supplements compared to whole food sources can be truly staggering. For example, the cost difference between a desiccated beef liver supplement and raw liver is $9.46 per ounce versus $0.15 per ounce (compared on a monthly level, consuming 4oz of beef liver pills is $37.84 while 4oz of raw beef liver costs $0.62). This isn’t to say that beef liver pills are not a good solution to adding nutrient-density for those who have the space in their budget, but for those who struggle to afford basic whole food ingredients, they are much better off sourcing and cooking the raw beef liver.
Another example would be comparing a green vegetable supplement to eating green vegetables. Green vegetable supplements take about ¼-½ pound of vegetables to make a 1-tablespoon serving, which costs about $2, while those raw greens cost closer to $1 for that same quantity.
Lastly, a lot of people mistakenly assume that they need to take multivitamins. These can actually be the worst supplements in terms of nutrition for the cost, as well as the most likely to include nutrients that are unnecessary as well as unwanted filers. If you are worried about getting a base level of nutrients in your diet and want to explore any areas of insufficient intake, I recommend tracking with Cronometer for a week to see where your weak spots are instead of taking a multivitamin “just in case.” If you are still concerned about nutrient intake, I recommend an article from our medical director, Rob Abbott, M.D. – Are You Getting Enough Nutrients on AIP?
Tip #4: Modify your protocol to include affordable staples.
If you’ve tried all the above, you may still find your budget cannot accommodate the full elimination phase. That doesn’t mean you can’t move forward with implementing food eliminations or adding in nutrient-dense foods that can help heal your body! The next area we are going to talk about is modifying the protocol to better suit your budget.
One of my favorite aspects of The Autoimmune Protocol is that it is a template and not a hard-and-fast set of rules that need to be followed in order to be successful. Each person embarking on AIP gets to decide what their protocol will look like, and if budget is a limiting factor, their elimination can be modified to address that aspect.
If you need to eliminate less foods due to your budget, I would encourage you to do so! First, do your research to determine that these foods will actually reduce your food budget, and be sure you are still incorporating nutrient-dense foods (like a range of vegetables, meats, and seafoods) in order to provide the nutrients needed for deep healing.
Here is a list of staple foods that I’d consider including in a modified elimination:
- Legumes (can be an affordable source of protein)
- Fruit and berry-based spices (this may open up some prepared meat options)
- Nuts and seeds (including spices and oils derived from them – caution as these can be expensive)
- Gluten-free grains (specifically white rice and gluten-free oats)
If you are going to include legumes and gluten-free grains, it is worthwhile to explore cooking methods that increase digestibility, like soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking in bone broth.
Now that we’ve talked about foods that you might consider in a modified elimination, let’s talk about those that you should be hesitant to include (especially for those who have a diagnosed autoimmune disease or are highly motivated to determine their food allergies and sensitivities).
Here is a list of foods I would be cautious of including:
- Eggs (all types)
- Dairy (including ghee, yoghurt, milk, cheeses)
- Nightshade-family vegetables
- Gluten-containing grains
The foods on this list tend to be more allergenic or stimulating to the immune system and they are less well tolerated by people with autoimmune disease. Dr. Sarah Ballantyne has some great articles outlining the “why’s” of these food eliminations in her articles on Eggs, Dairy, Nightshades, Alcohol, and Gluten that are worth reading if you are looking for more information.
Aside from modifying the original elimination phase to suit your budget, once you start experiencing success on AIP, you can use the same idea when it comes to reintroductions. You may modify the reintroduction protocol in order to prioritize the reintroduction of foods that are most affordable and keep your food budget in check.
Hopefully thinking about modifying the protocol from both of these angles gives you some things to think about in terms of making adjustments due to your food budget.
Tip #5: If there are any assistance programs available to you, look for the most nutrient-dense way to use those resources.
If you struggle with food insecurity, you may rely on assistance programs to bridge the gap. The USDA defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life” and an estimated 1 in 9 or 37 million Americans were food insecure, including 11 million children. Food insecurity is undoubtedly an issue that exists in the autoimmune community as addressed in Angie Alt’s article Food Insecurity and AIP.
Below I’ve outlined some ideas on using food assistance resources to get your hands on the most nutrient-dense, whole food ingredients to support a healing diet.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is for low income women and their children that is available in all 50 states. You can learn more about WIC here.
The rules that govern each state’s WIC program varies, but here are some ideas of foods you might be able to purchase through WIC:
- Fresh & frozen fruits
- Fresh & frozen vegetables
- Canned & packaged fruits & vegetables (like applesauce)
- Canned fish (tuna, sardines, salmon)
Modified AIP or reintroduction ingredients:
- Gluten-free oats
- White rice
- Cage-free eggs
- Dried beans (lentils, etc.)
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) is a federal nutrition program that helps supplement the food budgets of low-income people. You can learn more about SNAP here.
- Fresh & frozen fruits
- Fresh & frozen vegetables
- Herbs & spices
- Canned & packaged fruits & vegetables
- Canned fish
- Fresh & frozen meat & seafood
Shopping for food with SNAP resources isn’t just limited to the grocery store. Many farmers markets that take EBT cards are now able to take SNAP as payment for their goods. You can learn more about SNAP at farmer’s markets here.
Gluten-free food pantries are becoming increasingly more common, as is the availability of gluten-free food items at regular food pantries nationwide. Head over to the National Celiac Association for a list of Gluten-free food pantries.
Other local resources may be available to you–for example here in Portland, OR, we have an organization called Equitable Giving Circle that facilitates the purchasing of CSA boxes from BIPOC-run farms and distributing them to local BIPOC who are facing food insecurity.
Conclusion and community care
Depending on the barriers in place for accessing nutrient-dense food ingredients, I hope this article has given you a jumping-off point for further research in an effort to implement a healing diet that is affordable for you. If there is an angle I haven’t considered, or a solution you’d like to share with the community, please let me know in the comments!
For those of you reading who do not struggle with affording nutrient-dense, whole foods, consider using any additional resources you have to help support those facing food insecurity. Be sure to check out Angie’s article On Community Care to learn about how holistic healing encompasses community care, and some great ideas about where to direct your efforts in sharing additional time and resources. Beyond financial or food donations, this could look like offering to pick up groceries or drive those in your community to stores if they don’t have access to transportation that enables them to shop around and take advantage of low prices. Caring for our communities is a foundational piece of health and when we serve each other, we all get lifted up in the process.
- USDA National Monthly Grass-Fed Beef Report (January 2021)
- USDA National Monthly Pasture-Raised Poultry Report (January 2021)
- USDA National Retail Report – Beef (Feb 5, 2021)
- USDA National Retail Report – Chicken (Feb 5, 2021)
- US Bureau of Labor & Statistics Average Retail Food & Energy Prices (Dec 2020)
- USDA ERA Interactive Chart (2016)