Counting carbs, pennies

Your Money

July 11, 2004|By Gregory Karp

Low-carbohydrate diets are a popular way to shed pounds these days, but while diet devotees of Atkins or South Beach are slimming down, so are their wallets. Low-carb, high-protein diets can be expensive, possibly doubling your grocery food bill. Although you might be eating less, you're eating more expensive foods. Meat, fish and nuts are far pricier than pasta, bread and potato chips.

And if dieters get hooked on pre-packaged and outrageously expensive products labeled "low-carb," the family grocery budget will go bust in no time. A four-person American family spends about $7,500 on food each year, or about 14 percent of all spending, according to government data. So a low-carb lifestyle could cost thousands of dollars a year.

But low-carb isn't only a diet for the rich. If you want to limit the carbs but keep more money in your pocket, consider these strategies from low-carb experts, nutritionists and professional cheapskates:

Real food

"The best way to cut costs is to stay away from those low-carb processed foods," said Fred Pescatore, former medical director at Atkins and author of a new low-carb book, The Hamptons Diet.

"They're dreadfully expensive. You can pay $6 for a loaf of bread. That's ridiculous," he said.

Real foods include meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.


Use less expensive cuts of beef in low-carb recipes that call for pricier meats, says Colette Heimowitz, vice president of education and research at Atkins Health and Medical Information Services.

And use chicken and turkey, especially the affordable legs and dark meat. "Poultry is always cheaper than meat," she says. "You don't have to eat meat to succeed on low carbs."

Lentils and other legumes can be an inexpensive side dish or even a component of a main meal. While they're not low in carbs, they're high in fiber, which means they're OK on low-carb diets, Heimowitz says. Legume recipes are widely available on the Internet.

Use frozen vegetables and canned fish, which are cheaper than fresh varieties.

Buy seasonal fruits and vegetables, which are less expensive than those out of season. And consider growing a garden for cheap veggies.

Cook up savings

Spending some time in the kitchen can save money. Low-carb recipes are available in all the low-carb books and on the Internet.

Buy a head of lettuce rather than expensive bagged salad.

Make your own low-carb bread and crackers with crushed nuts and soy flour.

For desserts, make diet Jell-O for 49 cents a box instead of buying premade cups for $4. Buy unsweetened chocolate to make desserts, or make your own ice cream with sugar substitutes.

Celery with peanut butter or cream cheese is a cheap snack.

"There are ways to do this inexpensively," Pescatore says. "You don't have to buy $19.95-a-pound cheese."

Use spices and herbs to dress up cheaper cuts of meat. And use food leftovers in stews, soups and casseroles.

"You don't need low-carb products to succeed on Atkins," Heimowitz says.

And, of course, anytime you cook at home, it's cheaper than eating at restaurants.

Be a savvy shopper

Michelle Jones and her husband of King, N.C., switched to low-carb eating in January. But they're total cheapskates. Jones runs the Web site

She keeps costs down by rationing low-carb meal replacement bars and shakes and employing shopping tactics that work for all foods.

"We buy our low-carb products, including sugar-free candy and gum, at discount stores like Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart," Jones says.

Shop at warehouse clubs, where you can save money by buying larger quantities. Repackage frozen items into smaller portions.

"And we use our grocery-savings rule," says Jones. "If it's not on sale, it doesn't go in your cart."

Often that means planning meals around whichever meats, poultry and seafood items are on sale in a given week.

Still, even frugal low-carb dieters might be spending a little more on food in the short term. Long-term, though, fewer doctor visits and drug prescriptions to treat obesity, diabetes and other ailments more than balance the ledger, low-carb proponents say.

Gregory Karp is a personal finance columnist for the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Tale of the checkout tape

Foods that will help you go low-carb without going broke (from top):

* Canned fish

* Legumes

* Chicken (instead of beef)

* Frozen vegetables

* Seasonable vegetables

* Fresh lettuce (instead of bagged salads

* Unsweetened chocolate (for desserts)

* Nut flour (to make bread)

* Fruit in season

Expanding market

This year, as many as five new low-carb products are being introduced each week. That's on top of the 600 new products introduced in 2003, according to Laurie Kuntz, chief executive officer of LowCarbiz.

Total spending on low-carb offerings is expected to double to $30 billion this year from $15 billion last year.

Kuntz attributes the high-ball pricing of low-carb products to more expensive ingredients. And, of course, foodmakers are charging more simply because consumers are willing to pay.

Nutrition experts advise skipping processed foods and sticking with natural whole foods that are low in carbohydrates. But if you don't mind paying more, choices for low-carb convenience foods are many.

-- Gregory Karp

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