Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Healthiest Staple Foods on a Budget

The trouble with eating healthy is that it costs more than eating shitty, and is less convenient. Bottom line, you need to eat enough calories to keep you going, and we want to avoid getting those calories from unhealthy sources. As far as convenience, many of these foods lend themselves well to large-batch prep; make several pounds of stew at a time and reheat as necessary.

This list is focused on foods that pack a caloric punch and deliver good nutrition without emptying your wallet. If you pick the right foods, you can eat healthy on a budget. Forget the "healthy whole grains" and low-fat bullshit. This is real nutrition, what we are adapted to genetically. Fat is good, as long as it isn't vegetable oil.

Prices used are estimates based on my personal experience in Michigan, shopping at Meijer or similar stores and going for the cheapest reasonable quality option.

1. Ground Beef (75-80% lean)
Calories per Dollar: 350
This is a healthy, satisfying way to get your protein and fats. Ground beef is a very versatile food - my current favorite thing to do with it is chili, just cook the beef, add some canned tomatoes, tabasco, and spices, and finish it off by adding cooked bacon or smoked cheddar. Or Google around for more recipes. Don't be afraid of fat here, you're getting more healthy calories if you don't buy extra-lean.

2. Chuckeye Roast
Cal/$: 275
One of the cheapest beef roasts available, this fatty roast is one of your best buys in the meat section. Throw it in a slow-cooker or pressure cooker by itself, or in red wine with some carrots and potatoes for a kickass stew. The broth is something you have to experience.

3. Canned Sardines, Herring, or Mackerel
Cal/$: 75
Canned sardines are an extremely healthy food, since they provide the omega-3s that are lacking in the modern diet. Herring also provides omega-3s, and has a milder flavor. Both are also very nutrient-rich. Very portable, they make a good snack for on the go. At home, try them on a bowl of white rice with vegetables. These fish have very low levels of contaminants, as they are low on the food chain. Avoid ones packed in soybean oil.

4. Eggs
Cal/$: 325 for pastured, 500+ for factory farm
When you think of a traditional breakfast, you probably think of a big plate of eggs fried in butter, with some bacon or hash browns on the side. For good reason! Eggs are an excellent and economical food to start your day with. Pastured eggs are better, and still cheap enough per calorie to eat regularly. They offer a better fat balance and more vitamins, so I highly recommend them. Either way, eat the yolks.

5. Milk
Cal/$: 400 for grass-fed, 750 for factory farm
Nature's ultimate food for getting bigger. If you want to pack on muscle, the combination of milk and squats is legendary for a reason. Even if you just want to eat well, whole milk is a delicious way to get some healthy calories. Don't be afraid of the fat, it's good for you regardless of your weight goals. Some people are intolerant, so don't drink it if it gives you trouble. I recommend grass-fed for the same reasons I recommend pastured eggs, plus the fact that it's fucking delicious.

6. Butter
Cal/$: 400 for grass-fed, 750 for factory farm
Milk fat is an excellent source of calories and flavor. If grass-fed, it also delivers a bunch of vitamins (look up K2, it's huge) and healthy trans fats called CLAs that may help burn fat and prevent cancer. Fat is also necessary to properly absorb and process both omega-3 fats and nutrients from plants. So, believe it or not, it is healthier to sautee that broccoli in butter than to steam it. Take that, prudent diet!

7. Sweet Potatoes
Cal/$: 375
Nutrient-dense, cheap, and easy to prepare. Just poke it with a fork, stick it in the microwave for 5 minutes, and enjoy. Or make fries!

8. Potatoes
Cal/$: 375-1000+ if you buy those big bags
Good for many of the same reasons that sweet potatoes are. Mash em, bake em and add sour cream, make hash browns, fry them in butter...their uses are endless. Some people are irritated by the skin, so peel it if it bothers you.

9. White rice
Cal/$: Infinity
White rice is a fine and extremely cheap source of starch. I don't recommend most grains because they have a variety of problematic compounds and toxins, but white rice is pretty clean. Eat it to refuel your glycogen after working out, or just to fill out your dinner. Just don't make it your only food source, because it is nutrient poor. If you're trying to lose weight or are (pre)diabetic, you should limit carbs in general.

10. Almonds
Cal/$: 400-450
Almonds are the best of the nuts, with the possible exception of macadamias. They are a rich source of calories and certain vitamins like E, and are mighty tasty. I recommend soaking them in water for a few hours and then heat-drying them, as this reduces the anti-nutrients present. Blanching them also works. Almonds are somewhat high in omega-6 fats, so it's best not to overdo them. For a complete listing of nuts and oils, see this table - you ideally want to keep omega-6 fats below 4% of total calories.

11. Spinach and other dark greens
Cal/$: 40
OK, you're not choosing this one for calories, but spinach is a great source of all sorts of vitamins and minerals. Cook some bacon, add cream to that pan, and then wilt some spinach in a little butter and mix it all up. Alternatively, wilt the spinach and add in some cheese. Tons you can do with spinach.

12. Coconut Milk
Cal/$: 325
This is a great alternative to heavy cream. Try looking up a "cream of" soup and using this. It also makes a decent snack straight out of the can. When I'm lying in bed and I get hungry but don't want to make anything, I just have a couple spoonfuls of coconut milk. Other forms of coconut are similarly healthy and nutritious.

13. Organ meats
Cal/$: varies
These are extremely overlooked nowadays, but are excellent sources of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Almost all vitamins are better absorbed by our bodies when consuming them from animals than from plants. A few ounces of calves' liver a week is better than a multivitamin. Marrow is also very nutritious.

14. Wild Salmon
Cal/$: 100
Salmon is pricier than beef, but it's worth spending a little extra on it every once in a while. Salmon is one of the best fish to eat for many reasons. It is extremely rich in omega-3 fats, it is relatively free of mercury and other contaminants, and it is sustainably harvestable and not dying out like the tuna are. Check your area to see if you're lucky enough to have sashimi-grade on sale, it's worth it.

15. Avocadoes
Cal/$: 125
Avocadoes are one of the best sources of healthy plant fats. They make an excellent addition to salads, are a great base for dips/sauces (guacamole), and are a good snack plain. Try pairing this with salmon.

16. Chicken, Turkey, and Pork
Cal/$: 250
I include these together because they are suboptimal meats when raised in factory farms. They develop excesses of omega-6 fats from all the grain and soy they eat, which translates to a less healthy meat. Beef is mostly immune to this. Still, they are cheap and deliver a complete set of proteins. If pastured, these are healthier but more expensive.

Honorable Mention: Bananas. Very cheap and decent nutritionally, but have sort of a lot of fructose so I don't recommend them as a staple food. There's also some shady business going on with their production in many cases.

Bonus coffeeshop recommendation: Breve lattes. These are made with half-and-half and are as filling as a small meal. Super creamy and delicious.

Bonus sweetener recommendation: (brown) rice syrup. It doesn't contain fructose so it is much healthier for you than table sugar or HFCS. Agave nectar is the worst.

If you enjoyed this article, please click this link next time you buy from Amazon - it will send me a small bonus at no cost to you. Thank you!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

How to Eat for Good Health; a summary of nutrition

As the biologist Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Without evolution, we have a world of facts that are true for no reason. This is awfully reminiscent of the image of good nutrition that has been prevalent over the last decades - "Eggs are good, no wait they're bad, actually they're OK, or maybe not", and so on. But since nutrition is a biological question, we can turn to evolution to give it some coherence.

Under this rationale, foods we have been eating for hundreds of thousands of years should be healthy for us - if they weren't before, we have at least had time to adapt to them. Newer foods could be fine or could be awful.

The most prevalent of these new foods are grains, refined/hydrogenated oils, refined sweeteners, dairy, and legumes. All of these have been shown to be problematic for at least a decent percentage of the population, and many people will benefit from eliminating all of them. The first three are particularly bad and should universally be avoided, with a few possible exceptions.

The modern diet and lifestyle cause a collection of diseases from obesity to high blood pressure to heart disease, together known as the metabolic syndrome. One of the symptoms of the metabolic syndrome is an inability to process carbohydrate effectively. So, while healthy populations exist that eat mostly carbohydrates, if you have these symptoms you may need to restrict carbs in general. Conversely, exercise increases carb tolerance and insulin sensitivity, so if you are active you may be able to handle more carbs. Carbs also may make you hungrier faster than protein or fat; I know this is true for me personally.

I have spent the last several months reading somewhat obsessively about nutrition, and have put together what seems to me to be a good compromise of health and permissiveness regarding diet.


Animal products: Meat, fish, eggs, butter, cream, tallow, poultry, lard, etc.
Healthy plant fats: Coconut oil, palm oil, olive oil, avocado oil, cocoa butter. Extra virgin is best.
Tubers: Sweet potatoes, turnips, beets, taro, etc. Potatoes are less good but OK; remove the skin.

Eat sometimes
Tree nuts and drupes (walnuts, almonds, etc). Preferably soaked.
Fermented or sprouted legumes and non-gluten grains
White rice

Eat only if you tolerate it
Other dairy products, including milk and yogurt. Full fat is best.
Anything else not listed; consider the diets of your pre-industrial ancestors for guidance. Consider eliminating suspicious foods for a while and then reintroducing them.

Do Not Eat
Refined / concentrated sugar
Grains, especially gluten grains, especially wheat.
Refined vegetable / seed oils (soy, corn, sunflower, peanut, cottonseed, etc.)


Meat: Just as we are healthier when we are treated well and eat our natural diet, so are the animals we use for food. Pastured, grass-fed cows give more nutritious meat and milk, with a better fat balance and much more vitamins. The same goes for chickens and their meat and eggs. Wild-caught food is also excellent. Ruminants may be marginally better than other meat sources. Organ meats and marrow are incredibly nutritious.

Fruit and sugars: Historically, we would have had limited access to fruit, and it would have been primarily during late summer and fall when we would be fattening up for the winter. It may be best to eat fruit seasonally and not overdo it. Use honey sparingly, but studies show it is not nearly as bad as refined sugar. Refined fructose is easily the worst sugar for your body. Next are sugars that contain it, such as sucrose.

Grains, nuts, and legumes: These foods tend to be high in antinutrients like phytic acid, which can leach minerals from the body. Grains also contain certain lectins that can bind to leptin receptors and likely impair the ability to feel satiated. Gluten, a particularly hardy lectin, damages the intestines even in non-celiacs and may make them permeable to other substances. Fermenting, sprouting or soaking improves nutrition and removes most of the problematic compounds in non-gluten grains and legumes. Many healthy pre-industrial cultures around the world do not consume grains, but those that do generally prepare them this way. White rice seems to have little or none of the problematic compounds in many grains, but still has low nutritive value.

Fats: You can essentially have unlimited saturated and monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are the only kind of fat that you shouldn't go overboard on. These are composed primarily of omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats, and you want to get about an equal amount of both. Properly raised land animals have about this ratio, fish are higher in omega-3s and birds are lower. Almost all refined oils have a huge amount of omega-6 fats, far more than any natural food. This causes inflammation and heart disease, among many other problems. The average American diet is more like 15-to-1 in favor of omega-6s; this is why fish oil omega-3 supplements are so effective.

Vitamin D: Get it. Our bodies are adapted to being in the sun - a lack of it causes many of us to feel down in the winter. Lack of sun also combines with grain consumption to cause vitamin D deficiency in a large part of the population. Studies also indicate that D can cut your chance of getting the flu (and possibly some cancers) in half. Supplementation is probably a good idea - I take 2000 to 5000 IU per day. The RDA is way too low, a half hour in the sun will allow you to make as much as 10,000 IU.

Weight loss: Obesity is a disease generally caused by a poor quality diet, not by trying to eat too much. On a proper quality diet, obesity will generally reverse without a conscious effort to eat too little. Mild caloric restriction can help speed up this process, but may not be necessary. Taken too far, it is harmful and counterproductive.

Macronutrient ratios: You should be able to accomodate almost any macronutrient ratio within these guidelines. Experiment to see what works for you. I personally go quite heavy on fats, moderately high on protein, and somewhat low on carbs, but there's not really one ideal ratio.

Recommended Resources:
Big Fat Fiasco:
Fat Head: (overlaps with the previous video, same guy)
Sugar: The Bitter Truth:

Whole Health Source: (this is my favorite resource, easily)
Cooling Inflammation:
Evolutionary Psychiatry:
Something Awful Low Carb Megathread:

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why our voting system is broken, and how to improve it.

Voting systems are so central to the operation of any sort of representative government, but almost every one currently in use is provably severely flawed. I will write primarily about American systems, but the same flaws are present in virtually every nation that holds elections.

Before we can talk about what's wrong with the current system, we need to talk about what the purpose of voting is. In an abstract sense, a voting system is any function that takes the voters' opinions as input, and outputs a list of one or more of the candidates as winners. A successful voting system, then, does this in a way that makes the voters as happy as possible with the selection of winners. Note that the underlying assumption to this whole discussion is that democracy is the ideal form of governance; while this can be disputed, I'll work within that framework for this article.

The first problem with plurality voting, our current system, is that it does not listen well to the voters' preferences. Voters are likely to have an opinion on every candidate, and plurality voting fails by limiting the amount of information they can give to just naming one single candidate. If voters cannot express themselves fully, it is impossible to be sure of picking the best winner - no matter how smart the tallying system is.

As an example of this, suppose there are three candidates - Alice, Bob, and Charlie. 25% of the population prefers Alice, likes Bob, and hates Charlie. 35% of the population prefers Bob, dislikes Alice, and hates Charlie. 40% prefer Charlie, but also like Alice and Bob. Under plurality voting, Charlie wins even though only 40% can tolerate him. Bob only has 5% fewer "first choices" than Charlie, and everyone likes him, but he's sent home.

Another problem with plurality voting is that it encourages voters to lie about their preferences. If two candidates have the backing of major political parties, then anyone who votes for a third party candidate is effectively voting for the candidate they like the least out of the top two. A good voting system should encourage people to vote honestly, and deal with any resulting issues intelligently.

This issue leads into another - the fact that plurality voting tends to reduce the number of viewpoints available for voters to choose from. Specifically, plurality voting will nudge nations toward a one- or two-party system. This is known as Duverger's Law. With fewer options, it becomes less likely that an excellent candidate will even be in the race. The consequences are more far-reaching than just who wins, though - fewer candidates mean fewer viewpoints get exposure, making it more likely that good but unconventional ideas get ignored.

These are some, but not all, of the problems with traditional voting systems. At the least, I hope you will agree that our current system is flawed and we should consider other options. Many alternative, better systems have been invented - you may have heard of terms like instant runoff voting or Borda count. I argue that the best solutions to these problems are range voting and its simplification, approval voting.

When trying to create a good voting system, we ought to make sure that the voters can express themselves fully. A single check mark is an inferior option because voters likely have an opionion about most or all of the candidates. Ranking each possible pairing of candidates is a reasonable solution, but hardly concise. It also does not match our intuitive understanding of preference - it allows for illogical preferences such as saying that you want Alice to beat Bob, Bob to beat Charlie, and Charlie to beat Alice. Simply ranking the whole list of candidates seems better, but this still an oversimplification of our true mental picture of the relative merits of each candidate. It has been proven that ranked methods will always lead to some of the problems with plurality voting - this is known as Arrow's impossibility theorem.

Probably the best way to concisely represent one's opinions in an election is to give each candidate a rating - say, a number between 0 and 99. This captures views on all candidates very accurately, while being short enough to be entered into a voting machine. The tallying system is then natural - the results are averaged, and the candidate with the highest average wins. It is also easily adaptable to allow for elections with multiple winners; just take the top two or three. Range voting also avoids Arrow's impossibility theorem because it is not a ranked system.

In the end, the strongest argument for range voting is how well it selects a winner that makes the voters happy. The way we can measure how much a voting system will tend to produce inferior candidates is a quantity called Bayesian Regret (BR). If a system almost always picks the best winner given the voters' preferences, it will have a BR near zero. If a system fails to select a good winner, it will have a high BR value.

Mathematician Warren D. Smith has made computer models of various voting systems in many different simulated elections, in order to test which was most effective by measuring the average Bayesian Regret of each. Results were tabulated separately for both honest voters, and those voting strategically. The results of the analysis put range voting on top, in every category. If all voters are honest, range voting is nearly perfect in selecting the best winner. If all voters cast their votes strategically, giving only 0s or 100s, then range voting becomes "approval voting", which is still superior to any other tested system under strategic voting. The results of the study are published online.

In short, assuming five-candidate elections, we would gain more as a society by switching from plurality voting to range voting, than we would lose by starting to choose winners at random! But the true consequences are even greater, because of Duverger's law; elections so diverse hardly happen under a plurality system.

The real criticisms of range voting are few, and the main one is that a relatively small but loyal group of supporters could elect someone that no one else voted negatively for because they have not heard of them. This is fixable by requiring a minimum percentage of voters (a quorum) to have an opinion on a given candidate in order for them to win, treating empty votes as 50s, or by more sophisticated and accurate mathematical techniques.

With all the reasons that range voting is superior to what we have, yielding far superior results and allowing for a much more diverse and less hegemonic power structure, I hope you will support it as I do.

Make it better.

There is seemingly no limit to the amount of things in this world that are suboptimal. Poorly set-up elections, ways in which we choose beliefs, unfortunate mathematical conventions, oppression of truth, decisions made without enough facts. The examples range from trivial things in our daily lives to cornerstones of the world's most powerful nations.

This blog is dedicated to identifying these problems, and presenting fixes. Any issue is of interest, as long as it may convincingly be called suboptimal. Any fix is of interest, as long as it is truly an improvement. I hope very much that you will help bring these issues to my attention, and our improvements to reality.