Sign up for the TODAY newsletter

You have successfully subscribed to the TODAY newsletter.

Subscribe now and get trending stories, celebrity news and all the best of TODAY.

The high cost of low-carb diets. We do the math

by By Phil Lempert /  / Updated 

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter

For close to a year, low-carb diets, led by Atkins and South Beach, have been the number-one way of keeping in shape. In fact, according to ACNielsen, 17.2 percent of Americans are currently on a low-carb diet.

While much discussion has ensued about the nutritional benefits (and drawbacks) to this type of diet, little has been written about the actual cost of maintaining such an eating plan.

Conventional wisdom, of course, suggests that going on a diet means you eat less and that the cost of your food would be less as well. With Atkins or South Beach, though, adhering to the meal plans detailed in the books is more expensive than the typical amount spent on food.

Not only do the costs associated with this type of diet come as a surprise to many people but, as with a lot of things in life, it also raises the question as to whether the people that most need to lose those extra pounds can actually afford to do so.

We do the low-carb mathWe wanted to calculate just how much the two leading low-carb diets would cost, so we broke down each recipe and meal plan (for one person).

The average one-person household spends about $59 a week on their groceries, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s 2004 Trends report. We found that strictly following the portion size and ingredients in a weeklong program on Atkins totaled $99.89 and on South Beach $91.28.

Those who need low-carb diets most can least afford them
Obesity rates, as detailed in the National Health Interview Study, reveal some major differences in of our most correctable health dilemma: 26 percent of those whose income is less than $17,000 are obese compared to 18 percent for those individuals making over $67,000 per year.

Sugar, fat and grains are our cheapest foods – and those are exactly the food types that these low-carb diets want us to eliminate or reduce significantly. In fact, the new recommendations from the Institutes of Medicine last December reinforce this thinking -- they dropped the current Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates from 300 grams a day to 130 grams a day, less than half. Protein, in particular fish, chicken and meats, cost more than pasta and rice.

Low-carb diets on a budgetSo, what can an average person who still wants to keep close to their budget of $59 a week do?

  • To start, read those labels and look for those hidden carbs in products you may not expect. Sugars, like high fructose corn syrup, have been added to some ketchup, pasta sauces, salad dressings, and other sauces. Also, read the Nutritional Facts label and choose those products that have little or no carbohydrates.
  • Use the Atkins and South Beach diet plans as a guide, but replace the salmon and steak and other more expensive items with a chicken breast or tofu.
  • Buy frozen fish and meat. These tend to be cheaper (and most so-called “fresh” fish – and much meat -- has been previously frozen anyway). There is little nutritional or taste difference, when properly frozen and maintained at the correct temperature, in choosing these items over their unfrozen counterparts. In addition, frozen products can often be bought in bulk quantities at a discount.
  • Same thing holds true for fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries and raspberries (especially when these fruits are out of season and flown halfway across the world to your produce department).
  • Instead of Canadian or other bacons, choose a lean boiled ham. It will cost less than half.
  • Replace mixed green salads, often called mesclun, with a single type of lettuce. Buying a bag of already mixed and washed greens will cost you much more than preparing your own salad.
  • Both Atkins and South Beach suggest using extra-virgin olive oil on salads and in their recipes. Replacing this expensive oil with canola oil can add to your savings.
  • Many of the expensive herbs and spices in the fancy low-carb recipes can either be left out or replaced by something less glamorous. Use your taste buds – good old salt and pepper can often do the trick.

Meanwhile, for those who want to eat healthy and save money and don’t have a particular diet in mind, you may want to check out the Thrifty Food Plan developed by the USDA. On this plan, an individual spends just $43.54 a week. You can download the USDA diet at no cost at www.Cnpp.usda.gov/Pubs/Cookbook/thriftym.pdf

Keep in mind also that there is more to keeping in shape than food:

  • Burning those extra calories through additional exercise is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy weight. Simple changes to your routine, like walking and taking the steps rather than elevators will help.
  • Keeping a “fat diary,” in which you write down what you eat every day can also help. Research shows that those people who maintain a diary actually consume 15% less food than those who don’t. Use a paper diary, or for the computer savvy, you may want to try our free on-line private diary at www.philsfatdiaries.com.

Phil Lempert is Food Editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or via the e-mail form below. You can also visit his website at www.supermarketguru.com.

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
MORE FROM today