Rent, car payment, gas, electric, cable, health insurance, car insurance – all part of the monthly tab that eats away at your salary. For serious lifters, we need to add in gym dues (although that may be the one bill I don’t mind paying). The other big difference between us and the average person is in our monthly grocery budget. Getting big and strong requires the consumption of CARTLOADS of nutritious food, and that can get expensive. Fortunately, I think I can show you some ways to ease the pain as you go through the checkout aisle.
I have done some extensive research and have some pointers for you on either: A) saving money on your food bills, or B) showing you how you can afford more food so you can eat your way up to a lean weight at a bigger weight class, or C) both of the above. Some are common sense but I promise all of you will learn a thing or two from this article.
I also went to eight different grocery stores in the northeast Ohio area and compared costs of some of the staples in a good bodybuilding/strength-building diet. Although prices vary regionally and seasonally this gives us a good gauge of which places in your area you may be overlooking. I think you will find some interesting patterns emerge.
My nutrient Safari
My primary goal was to compare prices on a handful of staples that should be packed into every bodybuilder’s grocery carts. I visited five different grocery stores all in the same weekend that are prominent in northeast Ohio. Acme and Giant Eagle tend to be higher end, with Marc’s, Aldi’s and Save-A-Lot being popular discount grocers.
Prices at bare bones retailers like Save-A-Lot and Aldi’s tend not to change week-to-week, making them a fairly stable comparison point. If I find an item cheaper (through specials or store coupons) at another grocery than their price, I will stock up. Otherwise, I get my allotted amount from the bare bones store.
On that same weekend, I also went to three different wholesale food outlets (Sam’s Club, B.J.’s Wholesale and Gordon Food Service). You may be familiar with the first two businesses as they (along with Costco) are the most popular wholesale grocers in the US. The third, GFS (Gordon Food Service) is a distributor that delivers meat, fresh vegetables and other staples to restaurants but also have over 130 outlet stores open for walk-in customers (most located in MI, IL, IN, PA, OH, KY, TN and FL). Sam’s Club (with nearly 600 locations) charges $40 for a one-year basic membership. BJ’s Wholesale has a basic annual membership for $45. Costco charges $100. GFS does not require buyers to have a membership.
According to Stephanie Nelson (author of "The Coupon Mom’s Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half"), "With such voluminous inventories, wholesalers are able to offer lower prices – their merchandise markup ranges from about 8 to 13 percent, compared to the 50% markup at traditional retailers." With bodybuilders eating large quantities of the same staples, this seems like a perfect match.
Let’s look at first at an explanation of exactly what we should have on our grocery list and then we can follow it up with some price comparison...
Do I think eggs are a good part of a strength athlete’s diet? Well my extensive collection of spatulas has nothing to do with a fascination with culinary history. I make eggs at least twice a day. Not only are they great for the lifter on a tight budget, but they can be consumed in quantity without making any concessions in protein quality. Keep a dozen hardboiled eggs in the fridge for a great ready-to-travel snack. Toss three in a ziplock bag and you have eighteen grams of protein that can be eaten while driving. Dice a few into a salad along with some grilled steak or chicken breast and you have a man’s salad good for keto dieters or just a high protein/low carb meal; particularly handy for those that have a carb cut-off time later in the day. Steak and eggs before bed is my favorite anti-catabolic meal option, giving me hours of nocturnal nitrogen retention.
If you look into the history of the cholesterol scare focused on eggs you will find that it was a highly politically-driven one, with evidence showing that egg consumption may, in fact, improve heart health. From a nutritionist standpoint, eggs are a high quality protein source, containing fifteen amino acids (including significant amounts of leucine and arginine), in a ratio so ideal that it is often used as a comparison to judge protein quality. The yolk is rich in lecithin which assists in the digestion of fat and the vitamins biotin (B7) and riboflavin (B2). Eggs are also rich in antioxidants (glutathione, lutein and zeaxanthin) and vitamins A and D, folate, selenium and zinc.
For those on a weight gain program, eggs are a cheap source of calories and fast-cooked protein. For those that are on a fatloss program, eggs are great in that they fill you up with no carbs and you can reduce some of the yolks to drop the calorie count. Leave some in (at least one in four) since the quality of the protein is reduced with just whites.
For comparison sake we are going to stick with all large-sized, grade-A eggs. Most eggs sold fall into the large category, with medium and extra-large making up a small percent of egg sales. Eggs are ranked by the USDA based on freshness and other aspects of quality and appearance (grade AA being the best, then A, and finally B), but the difference between AA and A is not significant (and B is rarely found in a store). Each large egg gives us six grams of protein, trace amounts of carbs, and five grams of fat (for a 78 calorie total).
Eggs from free-range chickens are vastly superior in both taste and nutrient content. Also known as "omega eggs," the free-range chickens that are not fed grains benefit by having a more ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Factory chickens fed grains tend to have a very uneven ratio (roughly 19.4 to 1), which does not provide us with nearly enough omega-3 fats (the essential fatty acid lacking in most modern diets). Free-range chickens raised eating grass, insects, grubs and worms have yolks with a ratio close to (1:1). Some manufacturers also feed the chickens extra vitamin-E and flaxseeds to further improve their nutrient quality. The difference between the typical egg and free-range omega eggs is evidenced both in the superior taste of the free-range eggs and the bright orange yolk (a consequence of the beta-carotene content from plant consumption).
It can often be difficult to determine exactly how high in quality your healthy eggs actually are. For instance, Land-o-Lakes (which also sells eggs under the Eggland’s Best label) has a variety of specialty eggs. On the label of their All-Natural eggs, Land-o-Lakes defines all-natural as "Eggs laid by hens fed a vegetarian, whole-grain diet rich in corn and soy protein." Although their diets are enriched with a special "premium vegetarian diet" this distinction may have as much to do with the chickens living in an antibiotic and pesticide-free environment. Most do have higher levels of omega-three fats and lower saturated fat but may not be quite as good as grass-fed chickens not fed corn grains. Since we are limiting corn (and high-fructose corn syrups) from our diets, it is wise to avoid those same "nutrients" further down the food-chain.
If finances allow, go all free-range. If you are limited by the expense, then enjoy the quality protein available from factory eggs but make sure you are getting some extra EFAs supplemented into your diet via both macadamia nut oil and GRAM amounts of fish oil capsules or a (properly blended) oil in liquid or capsule form such as BI’s EFA Gold.
Liquid egg whites are also a great option, if for no other reason than that they can be consumed in mass without cracking eggs. I like to add a half cup to a protein shake (for 13 extra grams of protein) because it adds a creamy milkshake-like texture to the shake. In his "Mark Dugdale is Numero 202" DVD, pro bodybuilder Mark Dugdale shows his daily habit of drinking two pint-sized cartons of pasteurized liquid egg whites as a fast mid-day protein meal (supplying 52 grams of protein each) while working at his desk. While it might seem a bit slimy going down, I find it to be an effective strategy, perfect for the busy office worker or a between-client snack for personal trainers.
The phrase "rotten eggs" seems to have made many people over-estimate the delicate nature of eggs. Proteins and fats have a tendency to go bad easily but I was surprised in my research to learn that eggs will store in the fridge for up to four or five weeks with no loss in quality and hardboiled eggs can be stored for up to a week. It is recommended to keep them deep in the fridge in their original carton. The egg-shaped indented holder on the fridge door just exposes your eggs to temperature changes every time you open the door. The carton the eggs come in also protects them from picking up the scents of stronger smelling foods in the fridge.
Here is the egg price comparison breakdown:
Cost per dozen
Marc’s (Hillingdale brand)
Sam’s Club (Sauder’s)
7 ½ dozen (90 count)
BJ’s Wholesale (Hillindale)
5 dozen (60 count)
Gordon Food Service
2 ½ dozen (30 count)
A dozen large eggs provide 852 calories, 72 grams of protein, 0 grams of carbs and 60 grams of fat. Twenty grams of protein is roughly the equivalent of three and one-third large eggs.
Note that prices here vary widely, with over a 75% increase from the cheapest price we found. I now either purchase the Aldi’s brand when near their store or get two big flats from GFS for the convenience of storage. Thirty-count is good, ninety would take a bit too long for most to get through and hog up too much fridge space. Paying over a dollar a dozen for regular eggs does not seem wise.
EGGS (large) free-range omega-rich
Cost per dozen
Marc’s (Eggland’s Best)
Sam’s Club (Sauders Cage-free)
Sam’s Club (Eggland’s Best)
BJ’s Wholesale (Land-o-Lakes All-Natural)
While those with tight budgets should stick to regular eggs, the higher omega-3 fatty acids make range-free omega eggs a good nutritional upgrade. That said, I cannot imagine any eggs good enough to be worthy of paying over $3.00 a dozen. If things fall in that range, and you might be better served by mixing a couple omega eggs with a cup of liquid egg whites and add in healthy fats on the side.
LIQUID EGG WHITES
Cost per 16 oz.
Acme (Food Club)
Save-A-Lot (Papetti Foods Quick Whites)
Sam’s Club (Members Mark)
Four 16 ounce cartons
BJ’s Wholesale (Crystal Farm’s All Whites)
Four 16 ounce cartons
Gordon Food Service
GFS Liquid Egg Scrambled Mix with Milk *
2 pounds (32 ounces)
Sixteen ounces of liquid egg white provides 208 calories, 48 grams of protein and minimal carbs or fat. Six and two-thirds ounces of liquid egg whites yields roughly 20 grams of protein. * Not a liquid egg white product since it also contains egg yolk, whey, skim milk and other additives.
Best price by far is the GFS five pounder but, since they are providing restaurant-sized quantities, that size might be too much egg for most single-lifter households, but bodybuilders are far from typical. I was surprised to see that Save-A-Lot carried egg whites at all, since most of their bare-bones fare is not geared towards healthy eating (sadly, among those that are ultra-thrifty and/or economically-disadvantaged, health is not considered the top priority). I am also in the practice of making a beef and spinach quiche (sometimes with turkey bacon mixed in) once a week for convenient multiple meals on the go and make use of the GFS Liquid Egg Scrambled Mix with Milk since one carton is perfect for a lasagna-dish sized quiche. If my diet is tighter, I make this with egg whites and omega eggs instead as a half-cup (4 ounce) serving of the GFS mix has 11 grams of protein, 3 grams of carb and 8 grams of fat. If calories and fat restriction is not a concern, this is a convenient choice, while GFS’s 5-pound Liquid Egg White product would be the more economical option.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are a standard in almost every bodybuilder’s diet. They are a low fat protein source that is a part of any "clean eating" program. Chicken can be one of the most difficult grocery quality choices to make. A common practice is to load chicken breasts with sodium so that they osmotically pull in water and weigh more. You can either do research about the practices of your particular supplier or just ignore it and focus on the grams of protein supplied by our feathered friends. They died for our mass.
Lower in quality are chicken breast tenders or other "mixed" chicken products. These contain higher levels of fat since they are a composite of breast, rib meat and light and dark meats. As long as it is not breaded, it is acceptable but look at the macronutrient ratios.
Cost per pound
3 pound bag
Acme (Green Peak)
3 pound bag
2 ½ pound bag
Save-A-Lot (Shaner Chicken Breast Tenders)
2 ½ pound bag
3 pound bag
6 pound bag
BJ’s Wholesale (Perdue)
12 boneless breasts (~6 ½ lb)
BJ’s Wholesale (Tyson)
Gordon Food Service
Gordon Food Service
Gordon Food Service (cooked and diced)
Sixteen ounces (1lb) of chicken breast provides 129.8 grams of protein, no carbs and 12.8 grams of fat. They are 82% protein and 18% fat.
Large three to ten-pound frozen bags of chicken breasts are usually at least 10% less than fresh chicken. Since we will usually be cooking in bulk, this works well for our needs. With this in mind, the BJ’s Wholesale ten-pound bag of Tyson chicken was a nice choice but was beaten out by the Aldi’s three-pounder. Although relatively expensive in comparison, the GFS 3-pound bag is a personal favorite because it comes pre-cooked and diced. The convenience of this product in any chicken dish is hard to beat but you pay for it. It can form the foundation of a fast stir-fry (diced chicken, veggies, seasonings and some chicken broth over rice) and can boost the protein content of any chicken-friendly dish.
Almost 35% of turkey consumption in the US takes place during the holidays but averaging 99¢ per pound, turkey is a great year-round protein bargain. According to a representative from the National Turkey Federation, "The Edible Portion (EP), for a whole bird, is normally calculated at 47 percent of As Purchased (AP) weight," which still makes it an amazing deal. Larger turkeys have more meat in relation to the bone/cartilage foundation. The average turkey is 70% white meat and 30% dark meat (the white meat is far lower in fat). I recommend that you consider cooking a turkey twice a month year-round as a really affordable, high-quality source of protein.
In addition to providing a great source of protein, beef gives us a source of creatine, glutamine, zinc, Vitamin B-12 and saturated fat (crucial in the production of testosterone). Beef is extremely well-suited for dieting as it contains CCK (cholecystokinin) a hormone that has an effect on hunger regulation. Lean cuts of beef are often less expensive because the expensive steaks contain marbled fat which makes for a very moist, juicy steak. If you frequent one food outlet, it’s a good idea to get to know the butcher. They can let you know about deals.
When it comes to ground beef, ideally we want lean (90% or less) but younger lifters trying to gain mass and dealing with a tighter budget can save significantly by going for the less-lean cuts, blotting with paper towels (which reduces a lot of the fat content), and rinsing the meat in a strainer.
Cost per pound
Sam’s Club(3 ½–4lb package)
Cost per pound
Sam’s Club (4-5lb package)
Gordon Food Service (16-5oz. cuts)
Gordon Food Service (10-8oz cuts)
Lean Ground Sirloin (90% or above)
Cost per pound
Save-A-Lot *93% lean
Sam’s Club (5 ½ to 6 ½ lb containers)
BJ’s Wholesale (7 ½ lb container)
Prices vary widely with Giant Eagle being dramatically more expensive (up to double the cost of other stores). Since this may be the most expensive segment of your protein intake, it is worth shopping around for price. Again, the wholesale outlets did well but Aldi’s offered nearly as good or better of a price without a membership fee or need to buy in bulk. If you have adequate freezer space, get an idea of a good baseline price for beef and, when there is a sale stock up. You can also go to a butcher or farmer and purchase an entire cow (or a half) for a huge savings, although you will end up with a variety of cuts, including the less lean varieties.
Although fish is often more expensive than other forms of protein, it should be a regular part of your diet (at the very least making up two servings a week of fresh fish) for its well-documented health benefits. The price and availability of fresh fish fluctuates wildly. Not only am I a big fan of wild salmon (it is rich in omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA and tastes great), but I also include orange roughy, tilapia or whatever looks fresh and affordable that day. With the combo of protein and healthy fats, low carbs and its light but filling nature, fish is particularly useful when in a fatloss mode. For those of you that want to add to your longevity, the added health benefits of fish are also a consideration. Since fresh fish was difficult to get a comparison, here are some prices on canned tuna, which is a great long-term storage solution:
Tuna – White Albacore
Cost per pound
Giant Eagle (Bumblebee) 12 oz. can $3.65
Giant Eagle (Chicken of the Sea) 12 oz. can $3.99
Marc’s (Starkist) 12 oz. can $2.98
Acme (Chicken of the Sea) 12 oz. can $3.99
Acme (Starkist) 12 oz. can $4.19
Save-A-Lot (Starkist) 5 oz $1.49
Aldi’s (SeaNet) 5 oz. $0.99
Sam’s Club (Starkist) 5oz./8 cans $8.98
Sam’s Club (Member’s Mark) 5oz./8 cans $9.87
BJ’s Wholesale (Bumblebee) 7oz./6 cans $8.99
Tuna – Chunk Light
Cost per pound
Giant Eagle (Bumblebee) 12 oz. can $2.59
Giant Eagle (Starkist) 12 oz. can $3.45
Marc’s (Starkist) 12 oz. can $1.98
Acme (Food Club) 12 oz. can $2.49
Acme (Bumblebee) 12 oz. can $2.59
Save-A-Lot (Portside) 12 oz. can $0.59
Aldi’s (SeaNet) 12 oz. can $0.49
Sam’s Club (Starkist) 5oz./10 cans $6.88
BJ’s Wholesale (Bumblebee) 5oz./12 cans $7.99
Cost per pound based on can size; does not factor in liquid content in the can.
On the weekend I went price comparing, fish was the most difficult to find a standardized model to look at, with no one type of fish being carried in enough stores to allow comparison. I saw orange roughy ranging from $8.99 (GFS) to $13.99 a pound (Giant Eagle), although I have seen better price and quality on other visits. Tilapia varied from $3.49 (Save-A-Lot) to $4.99 a pound (Acme). With fish, I recommend that you first determine what types you like. Sea bass, ocean catfish, halibut, snapper, trout, cod, flounder, haddock, sole, walleye (and most freshwater fish) tend to have a more delicate flavor. Things like salmon, marlin and swordfish and tuna have a stronger flavor. Many of these (salmon, tuna, shark, mackerel) are also the species that are highest in omega-3s, making it a highly individual choice.
With canned tuna, content, flavor and consistency also varies widely from brand to brand so I recommend that you first try a can or two of the less expensive brands and, should it meet your expectations, wait for a good price on it and stock up. In the examples listed above, the best price is by far from the bare-bones bargain store and their prices tend to stay consistent, so you probably need not wait for a sale. Find something you like and keep stacks of canned tuna in your pantry.
The standards here are oatmeal and rice (with sweet potatoes making an appearance). The function of these items is obvious – simple energy to assist in recuperation and growth. You will need to experiment to find out the correct amounts of carbs to do the job without spilling over into fat gain, but the standard choices of rice and oats have stood the bodybuilding test of time based on convenience.
Gordon Food Service (Par Excellence Brown 25lb $16.79)
Long Grain White Rice
Cost per pound
Save-A-Lot (Rapid Rice on the Side 28oz $2.49)
Aldi’s (Rice Bowl 3lb $1.49)
Sam’s Club (Riceland Long Grain 25lb $8.99)
Sam’s Club (Minute Rice 72oz $4.78)
Your wallet finally gets a break when it comes to carbohydrate-based foods. But just because they are inexpensive does not mean you should not price compare. Just a simple glance at the oatmeal price comparison shows that a reckless cart selection may cost you two and a half times as much per canister. The variance of both white and brown rice is as broad. In both cases, I recommend that you buy large bulk quantities and store them in large air-tight bins, as they store well and will not spoil. I have bought a few extra measuring cups that I just leave in the bins as scoops in order to simplify my food prep.
MONEY SAVING POINTERS
Generic options make sense with many items. Old-fashioned oatmeal is identical, regardless if it is made by a Quaker in a powdered wig and Pilgrim hat or not. It makes no sense to pay double the cost for a popular or sharply labeled brand.
Go With a List. Even if you were Bill Gates wealthy, you should (as a bodybuilder) go to the store with a shopping list and a pre-determined meal plan. This will ensure that you return with the nutrient-rich, muscle-building foods you need, not a cartload of delicious, processed crap. This article will help you with that.
Use Coupons. Coupons are not just for grannies. If you get the Sunday paper, there is a wealth of coupons available. According to a 2008 study by the Scarborough Research, 53% of households use newspapers as their primary source of coupons. The internet is also a great source.
Make use of an online coupon directory
Couponmom.com is a great resource which collects all the deals from circulars in your area. Coupon.com, coolsavings.com and couponsurfer.com are all sites in which you can specify which items you are interested in and print out coupons for just those items. It is also smart to check out the grocery stores website since most have printable coupons there. Coupons can account for a forty to eighty dollar savings minimal on the average musclehead grocery bill. Move over Grandma, we are eatin’ for mass here.
Some stores offer double-coupon days (often with limits like " up to 50¢" ) which adds up fast and is worth arranging your purchases for those events. Some stores will even accept expired coupons or coupons from their competitors. Find out your local stores’ policies. "Rain checks" are also a great tool. By asking, you can usually get a handwritten form coupon to get a sales item that might currently be out-of-stock.
In her book, Stephanie Nelson shares a story about teaching a local TV reporter the value of coupons for an on-air segment. "The real stunner for her was my final bill. The items I’d purchased rang up to $96, but with all the coupons I used, I walked out with my wallet just $17 lighter." If you have ever complained that you ›just don’t have the money to eat for bodybuilding’ maybe you just aren’t shopping smart enough?
Since you know the foods that make up your diet and can use the prices found here as a gauge to determine exactly what constitutes a good deal, take advantage of any specials you find on non-perishable goods. Stores often offer "loss leaders." These are items that are sold at a loss, knowing that it will lead consumers to the store, where they will probably buy more and hopefully become regular buyers of their full-priced fare. Stockpiling these items can pay off. For instance, if you find white albacore tuna for less than a dollar a can, fill your cart with as much as you can afford. It will last you through the Apocalypse and you will need every bit of muscle mass in the violent last days of civilization.
A great investment is a large freezer that you can put in the garage or basement to stockpile on deals on meats, like ground sirloin, chicken breast or top round. Dividing a five-pound block of ground meat into half-pound or one-pound packets saves you from having to chip away at a huge hunk of frozen meat for one or two servings.
Use Modernized Tech. If your cell-phone, iPad or PDA has a basic "notes" section, take the time to type in your basic grocery list plus your reference price. This way, when you come across a special, you can quickly check to see if it is, in fact, a good deal or a great one.
There you go. Grocery shopping is something we all have to do, and even more so if you are a bodybuilder. If you follow the guidelines of this article, it doesn’t have to clear out your wallet. A modest amount of prep and a strategy for stocking your fridge, freezer and pantry can cut down your monthly grocery budget considerably.
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Clark, Kris.Lost and Found in the Grocery Store. (DVD) Healthy Learning, 2006.
Dugdale, Mark.Mark Dugdale is Numero 202 (DVD) 3G Enterprises, LLC, 2010.
Kahn, Barbara & Leigh McAlister.Grocery Evolution. Addison-Wesley, 1987.
Leamy, Elisabeth.Save Big. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.
Learning Seed.Value Shopping: Stretch Your Grocery Dollar. (VHS) 1996.
Nelson, Stephanie. The Coupon Mom’s Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half. Avery Publ., 2009.
Ostyn, Mary.Family feasts for $75 a Week. Oxmoor House, 2009.
Staten, Vince.Can You Trust a Tomato in January? Simon & Shuster, 1993.