Calories per dollar vs calories per glycemic load: some notes on my diet

byAndy_McKenzie4y14th Mar 201518 comments


Recently I decided to try to better measure and improve my diet a little bit. These were some of the parameters that I was and am interested in: 

1) Ease of preparation. My time is scarce, and more importantly my willpower is scarce, and I often will just not make foods if they take too long to prepare, and then sometimes the ingredients will just end up going bad. I know, #privilege, but I'm trying to be honest with myself and realistic here. 

2) High calorie to glycemic load ratio [1]. I need to consume calories -- obviously -- but while I'm doing so I want to minimize the number of times that I experience high glucose levels in my bloodstream, which appears to be toxic both in terms of increasing risk of diabetes [2] as well as decreasing cognition [3]. 

3) Minimizing animal suffering. I'd prefer foods whose preparation didn't entail the suffering of animals, or at least foods that came from places that tried to decrease it, like cage-free chickens.

4) Taste. I try to minimize the importance of this and think that I do a decent job, but empirically it has prevented me from more commonly eating certain foods, such as sardines, at least for now. Very open to suggestions here. 

5) High calorie to dollar ratio. Because money is the unit of caring.  

6) Available on FreshDirect. Because I'm lazy. 

Food is heavily moralized and politicized, and I'm expecting to be judged for this post by readers who are veg*an, by readers who are into organic food, by readers who are anti those groups because I am perceived as pandering to them, as well as a variety of other groups that I can't fully anticipate and might not even know about [4]. That said, I'm posting it because a) I think it might be useful to others and b) I'm interested in feedback. 

In terms of influences, I've been most influenced by the book The Perfect Health Diet, which has truly a terrible name, but which includes lots of discussion of trade-offs of different dietary approaches and seemed to (the relatively uninformed) me to be pretty reasonable. It advocates a medium-carb, high-fat, medium-protein diet. 

Below is my main result. You can find more details at this google spreadsheet and plotting code at github [5; 6]. 

A few notes: 

1) The top cluster is obviously artificial -- their glycemic load of each of those is basically negligible, so instead of infinity, I set those ratios to 1. Still, it's interesting to note that none of those are blockbusters in terms of calories per dollar in the same way that lentils, rice, or potatoes are. If you know any such foods, please let me know. 

2) I was surprised that sweet potatoes did not fare better in terms of calorie to glycemic load ratio. I suppose they may be more nutritious in other ways than the other starches included, though. 

3) Nuts and cheese came away from this analysis as having a lot of desirable properties, so I'm trying to eat more of both of those food groups. 

I'd appreciate any feedback you might have. 


[1]: Glycemic load per calorie makes more sense to me since it normalizes to the number of carbs you actually get from a given amount of food, rather than glycemic index which uses the same number of grams of carbohydrate from each food tested.

[2]: Note that there is some conflicting evidence here so caution is warranted. 

[4]: If you insist on reading this footnote, I'll note here that I have tried to go both vegetarian and vegan before, but each time I found it both difficult logistically and literally tiring -- I think there was some sort of nutrient that I was missing that made me worse-off. And this was after some research to make sure that I'd get other nutrients that I needed, including B12. I concluded that it wasn't that easy, and instead made a small donation to the animal welfare charity Certified Humane to offset some of my guilt. If I had more money, I'd donate some more. 

[5]: Note that I manually shifted some of the data points to make the text labels more legible, which you can see in the code. 

[6]: As an addendum, here are some foods you won't find on there, and why: 

a) Salad. There is actually a way to get pretty cheap salads around where I live, but historically speaking, salads leave me substantially more hungry two hours later and basically have a tendency to ruin my day, so I avoid them. 

b) Insects. I recently became intensely interested in eating insects for 30-60 minutes, but on cursory internet research, couldn't find anything that came close to justifying a calorie to dollar ratio worth considering. Please enlighten me in the comments if you can. 

c) Bread. Subjectively, I seem to be especially sensitive to its glycemic effects -- after eating it, I often feel my heartbeat increase and can feel my blood vessels pumping "harder," which I expect are signs of post-prandial hyperglycemia and is unpleasant, though of course I could be wrong. I still eat bread, but I'm trying not to eat as much. 

d) Mealsquares. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell these contain eggs and I seem to have developed a food-only (!) egg allergy, plus eggs are like the poster child of the "these are surprisingly unethical, at least when conventionally farmed" camp, so I'm not that motivated to solve my apparent allergy. This allergy/opinion is pretty rare and I don't think they should change just for me, but it means that I didn't do much research into them.