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Shrink Your Waist, Not Your Wallet: High Protein, Low-Carb Weight Loss Surgery Eating On a Budget

By Dana Babeu, R.D. | March 16, 2013

Low-carb diets are practically everywhere these days from grocery store shelves to magazine covers. Many restaurants even have entire sections of their menus devoted to this way of eating. For people who have had or are considering weight loss surgeries like LAP-BAND, Gastric Sleeve or Gastric Bypass, high-protein/low-carb becomes a way of life.

To prevent deficiencies and promote maximum weight loss following surgery, nutrient dense foods like chicken, eggs, low-fat dairy and green veggies must replace empty calories from simple carbs and sugar. Unfortunately, the same foods that shrink our bodies also tend to thin our wallets if not approached with some thoughtful planning. It is possible to eat well following surgery without taking out a loan to do it. Here are some tips for stretching your high protein/low-carb dollars:

  • Consider the payoff. Before you even set foot inside a store, take a minute to remember why you’ve chosen weight loss surgery in the first place. For most, better health and an improved quality of life are often high up on the list of reasons, but getting there is a process and a journey. This journey requires an investment of time, energy, and yes, money. So if you find yourself getting frustrated at the higher cost of food, remember the bigger picture – lower healthcare costs, less expensive clothing, and a smaller you!
  • Supersize it. Buy expensive items in bulk or on sale and freeze usable portions. A small chest freezer costs around $200 and can be used to store expensive proteins like boneless, skinless chicken, beef, buffalo or lamb. Choosing airtight bags or freezer wrap can further extend the life of your protein investment.
  • Go au natural. Befriend a hunter. Many cuts of deer or other wild game are naturally lean and come with the added benefit of being truly all-natural and free range. Because open season usually lasts for a limited time each year, hunters often end up with more food than they can use or store on their own. Chipping in for the cost of processing (and maybe giving a small thank-you gift) might net you some very inexpensive and high quality meat. Not to mention expanding your taste bud’s horizons!
  • Find a farm. If deer and game are a little too far outside your culinary comfort zone, consider a CSA or animal share for locally raised meat, eggs and dairy. You may be able to save over conventional store prices while getting a much better quality product. Because many of these options dispense large quantities at one time, a separate deep freezer may be a necessity.
  •  Be your own muscle. If space is at a premium and large quantities aren’t an option, consider buying large cuts of meat, whole chickens, or even solid blocks of deli meat and cheese and cutting them to order yourself. A large portion of the up-charge on foods like chicken breast fillets, trimmed meat, and pre-formed burgers is the input of labor to get to the end product. Thanks to online video sites like YouTube, you can even learn to debone a chicken or filet a fish like a pro. So roll up your sleeves, grab a cutting board and knife and apply your own elbow grease for free!
  • Re-think frozen. Many high protein/low-carb foods can be better bargains straight from your store’s freezer. Plus, there’s the added benefit of not having to re-package them yourself or use them up right away. Frozen fish, shellfish and whole chickens or turkeys are often better deals than their fresh counterparts. Pair them with a side of low-carb frozen veggies for an easy and nutritious meal.
  • Use convenience carefully. Avoid relying too heavily on expensive, highly processed protein foods like shakes, powders, and bars. Post-operatively, these foods will be necessary to incorporate to some extent, but be sure to shop around for the highest quality at the lowest price. Big box stores and online retailers often sell the same brands as grocery and chain stores, but for far less. Consider saving the priciest items like pre-made shakes and bars for times when you absolutely need the grab-and-go option. Otherwise, mix the shake yourself from powder or scramble a couple of eggs instead. Investing a few extra minutes adds up to significant cost savings over time.
  • DIY. Prep in bulk and make your own frozen dinners. Even a normal-sized Weight Watchers or Lean Cuisine may be portion overload following weight loss surgery. Invest in some freezer-friendly storage containers and you’ll have high quality, perfectly portioned meals ready whenever you need them. Some foods that freeze and reheat well include stews, chili and scrambled egg “muffins” like these: Scrambled Egg Muffins
  • Be flexible. Plan meals around what’s on sale or in season. Write your shopping list with categories in mind, rather than specific foods. Say, for example, you want to make fajitas. Instead of picking up the first package of chicken you see, check what other proteins are priced lower. Tilapia, flank steak and even pork loin can be the main ingredient if you keep your eyes (and mind) open.
  • Call in a sub. Less expensive ground turkey can be swapped for beef in almost any recipe. Stir fries can be made with tofu or chicken in lieu of shrimp and beef. And who says eggs are just for breakfast? They deliver a great punch of protein for a fraction of the cost of meat. A frittata and side salad make an easy, affordable and weight-loss-friendly meal that’s delicious any time of day.
  • Go greener. Herbs are great for flavoring all kinds of post-op friendly protein and veggies, but they’re often expensive and must be used up quickly. Grow your own in a few small pots on the windowsill or an outside garden depending on available space.
  • Do the can-can. Most grocery stores have sales on shelf-stable goods once or twice each year. This is a great time to fill your pantry with protein superstars like natural peanut butter, tuna, canned salmon, sardines and beans.
  • Borrow from your budget. Even with planning and cost-saving strategies, high protein can still add up. Re-allocating money from other areas of your budget, for example eating out less frequently or walking at a park instead of going to a movie, can make the transition to a post-surgical diet more manageable.
  • Compare apples to apples. Or in this case, chicken to chicken. Avoid the temptation to compare the cost of a box of pasta to a pound of ground turkey. Comparing foods of similar nutrient densities is the only way to truly gauge the value of your protein investment.

Eating higher protein and low carb following weight loss surgery can finally put an end to the frustrating cycle of yo-yo dieting, and it doesn’t have to break the bank. Armed with these cost-saving tips and strategies, you’ll be on your way to a thinner, healthier you in no time with money left over for a new wardrobe!

Dana Babeu, RD, is a registered dietitian at New Jersey Bariatric Center, a medical & surgical weight loss center with offices in Springfield, Somerville, Hoboken, East Brunswick, Hackettstown and Sparta, New Jersey. She provides pre-operative and post-operative nutritional counseling to New Jersey Bariatric Center’s Gastric Bypass, Gastric Sleeve, LAP-BAND (gastric band) and revision patients, in addition to dietary counseling for patients in our Medical Weight Loss program.
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