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November 1, 2012

A Week Living on Food Stamps: $4.56 per Day

The gym is rocking. Skrillex is bumping and twelve people are ready to bust their asses at 6am. They start with basic stretches and move quickly into the ladder – high knees, laterals, ballistic squats, side cuts, pushups. Everyone’s heart rates climb and after 5 minutes, it’s time to get after it for real.

Today’s Functional workout is a euphemism for ‘you want to die’.

And die is exactly what I wanted to do. In the first 5 minutes of exercises, I wanted to quit. In over 6 months of training, I had never thought that, but I was out of fuel.

The Challenge

Roughly 72 hours earlier, I began Day 1 of the SNAP Challenge (aka Food Stamp Challenge).

The rules were simple:

  • Live on $4.56 per day for 7 days, including beverages
  • Eat only what you pay for (no freebies)
  • No dining out because food stamps aren’t accepted

Let’s be clear: I’m not trying act as if I’d understand what it’s really like to live a life of poverty where living on food stamps is only part of the struggle.

I chose to test the challenges of poverty and nutrition although I could have tested other things like poverty and eating organic, fresh vs. frozen, restricted diets, convenience, variety, etc.

This wasn’t about ‘surviving’ a week; this was about getting the most nutritional bang for my buck, seeing what I could do, and learning from that.

The Citizen Scientist

This was a self-experiment to achieve greater self-awareness and empathy.

If you aren’t familiar with self-experimentation, you can make significant discoveries with a sample size of one.

“The true method of knowledge is experiment.” – William Blake

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.” – Richard P. Feynman

Yes, there’s a bias inherent in self-experimentation but there is value one can derive.

Setting Baseline Controls

I’m a little obsessive about measuring progress so I already had baseline statistics.

You should know that I also eat out a lot. A LOT. So my lifestyle effected my baseline and making both a food and lifestyle change contributed to my results.

I decided to track these areas to test the effects of my choices while living on food stamps:

  • Weight & Body Fat %: Tanita scale and measured myself each morning.
  • Acidity: Phion Diagnostic ph Test Strips tested at the same time each morning.
  • Energy During Workouts: Self-evaluation post workout.
  • Sleep Cycles: $0.99 iPhone app which I’ve been using nightly for the past 2 years.
  • Daily Nutrition: Free iPhone app called MyFitnessPal.
  • Daily Observations: Took notes throughout the day.

Life Testing

A lot of questions ran through my mind when I decided to do this so I focused them down to what I felt were important questions for me to answer for myself.

Surely those who truly live on food stamps aren’t asking these questions, but then again, this was my experiment to gain greater self-awareness and empathy.

I decided to test the following questions:

  1. What are the effects on my body from the choices I make?
    Daily tracking and measurement helps me understand how these choices affect my body.
  2. Can I receive enough nutrition in order to keep an active lifestyle?
    Many of those on food stamps are manual laborers so they expend a great deal of energy and calories in a day. I can’t change my sedentary job so I decided to stick with my workouts and see the effects of my food choices.
  3. What lifestyle habits would change vs. stay the same?
    When you have the option to eat out all the time, it’s easy to set meetings involving food or drinks. Making food changes what I do and what time I do them.
  4. Does practicing misfortune lower my fears?
    Philosophers across the world have long taught us to value that which cannot be taken away. Stoics like Seneca taught us to actively practice poverty while asking yourself, “Is this the condition I so feared?” Tibetan Buddhists create and destroy sand mandalas to symbolize the transitory nature of material life and Hindus practice Vānaprastha which is a gradual detachment from the material world.

The Meal Plan

Clint Gehde, Co-Owner of Element 3 Lifestyle, is one of the best trainers in Denver, hands down. He’s been a trainer for 12 years, has a B.S. in Kinesiology Science from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, and certified nationally for the past 10 years. He’s also a great friend and pushes me past my limits. When I told him about this challenge, he was excited to help me craft a meal plan.

So were my friends on Facebook, and there were no shortage of opinions:

Screenshot of Facebook post describing the experiment to friends

The plan was simple: protein and carbs.

The protein intake helps keep sustainable energy for when my sugar levels drop. Protein also usually comes with a little bit of fat and in this case, that was a good thing.

Fat helped maintain energy levels when I started the day, especially working out, when my energy levels were already going to be low due to low sugar. Energy is pulled from fat storage so weight loss was likely to occur. Not a bad thing.

I worked through combinations of foods but the reality is that I’d have to go to the store to find what was on sale and then buy foods that worked together.

With $31.92 for the week, I decided to spend roughly $29 (receipt here) and keep close to a 10% cushion in case something unplanned occurred. Hey, I am an investment advisor.

100% whole grain bread and 1 tbsp Skippy Natural honey flavored creamy peanut butter

Pre-Workout: 100% whole grain bread and 1 tbsp Skippy Natural honey flavored creamy peanut butter

2 medium white egg omelet with salt and pepper and ½ cup oatmeal with water

Post-Workout Breakfast: 2 medium white egg omelet with salt and pepper and ½ cup oatmeal with water, mixed in 1 tbsp peanut butter

½ cup oatmeal with water, ½ banana, ½ tbsp peanut butter

Snacks at 10am and 3pm: ½ cup oatmeal with water, ½ banana, ½ tbsp peanut butter

4 oz chicken breast (frozen, raw) seared and baked, seasoned with salt and pepper

Lunch and Dinner: 4 oz chicken breast (frozen, raw) seared and baked, seasoned with salt and pepper; 2/3 cup frozen green beans or spinach, salt and pepper to taste; 1 cup canned black beans, rinsed to reduce sodium

1 to-go packet of pink lemonade light for low calorie sugar water

Beverages: 10 cups minimum of water per day, 1 green tea packet for morning caffeine, 1 to-go packet of pink lemonade light for low calorie sugar water

The Results

I tracked my measurements at the same time every day to keep it as controlled as possible.

  • Weight: I went from 190 lbs. to 183 lbs. without adding any muscle. That’s 7 pounds of fat loss in as many days which equates to a 3.7% drop in body fat. I consumed 1452 calories per day, substantially less than my ideal target of 1700-1900 calories per day.
  • Acidity: I went from a somewhat acidic environment at 6.25 to an unhealthy acidic body at 5.5. Cancer thrives in an acidic body so the odds of fighting it go down. In order to increase the alkaline, I would have needed to eat more greens and less protein. That would have been more cost effective, but I’d have less protein to provide me with sustainable energy.
  • Energy During Workouts: On day 1, I measured an 8. By day 3, I was down to a 2. Remember the story above? I ended up completing the workout and when I was done, I sat with my head in my hands, frustrated. I realized that if a laborer were to try to eat as healthy as I did, they would not have enough energy to do their jobs. They can’t cut reps so they have to increase their intake of starchy, low-cost carbs that are less nutritious.
  • Sleep Cycles: For the past 2 years, I’ve slept an average of 06:45 per night, with a 70% sleep quality rating. During the week on food stamps, I slept the same amount but my quality reduced to 55%. Food Stamps helped me have an access to quality and nutritional food, but could not do much about my sleep. Less time in REM means waking up with less energy. Less energy means it’s harder to get through the day without feeding yourself empty carbs to give yourself a boost of energy. Less sleep also affects your recovery time when doing manual labor although I wasn’t able to track that.

The conclusion was obvious: either eat healthy and have less energy or fill up with empty calories.


  • Monday: Day 1 and I woke up with a migraine and I hadn’t even started the challenge yet. I slept from 11:30am – 12:30pm and then again from 4 – 8pm. I realized how difficult it was for me to get rid of a migraine while eating this way. Normally, it goes away in a couple hours.
  • Tuesday: I love creative work and problem solving and given an extra hour in a day, that’s what you’ll find me focused on. Today, I lacked the energy to think creatively and found myself gravitating to work that I knew I could do easily (e.g. analysis, planning, emails).
  • Wednesday: 3 days in and I hit the wall. My body was having a difficult time adapting to the changes and the morning workout sucked. Creativity was at its all time low for the week.
  • Thursday: Had a Leadership Denver meeting at a restaurant so I brought my banana and peanut butter, knowing I wouldn’t be able to heat up the oatmeal. I decided not to cheat because those were the rules, but the reality is that someone who lives on food stamps wouldn’t likely turn down a hot meal. They also aren’t likely to be at a restaurant in the first place. I then went to a non-profit event to see Project Angel Heart who cooks and delivers healthy meals to those with terminal illnesses. Seeing all that food around me was difficult but I was inspired by their cause and translated that into discipline.
  • Friday: We had a wine tasting fundraiser for Minds Matter where 250 people showed up. There was free wine everywhere and even at our own booth, we had a wine and cheese pairing contest and I love me some cheese. I didn’t cheat and realized how much self-discipline that took. It’s rare that I have to impose that level of discipline on myself so I was happy to have that opportunity and overcome the challenge. Even when we went out for drinks afterwards, I sipped on water.
  • Saturday: I cheated at dinner. Raph and I got a suite at the Rapids game for our team and that came with all you can eat and drink. We started at 5:30 and ended around 10pm so there was simply no way for me to bring my food and eat it before or after. I also wanted to be fun for my team as this was a bonding event, so I decided to not make it into an issue.
  • Sunday: Was trying not to remind myself that this was the last day because people in poverty don’t have a set timeframe. I ended up planning my meals for the upcoming week with my newly built cooking habits, and went grocery shopping. You’re not supposed to do that hungry, I can vouch for that. With the last $3 still on-hand, I spent it on a stir fry meal for dinner and added a little extra nutrition knowing that the next morning, I would begin to transition to a normal meal plan.

Game Changers are always looking for ways to make an impact and I found this self-experiment to be filled with lessons we can use in business and philanthropy.

Lessons for Game Changers

  • Practice what you fear. Either in your mind or through action – then you have nothing left but to think and act big. Use the ancient Hindu, Buddhist, or Stoic philosophies to not be afraid. Live on offense, not on defense.
  • See challenges as opportunities. On Friday morning, I met with a dentist at a non-profit called KIND (Kids In Need of Dentistry) and she serves the low-income population. She will be using the lessons from this to better educate her patients on not just the importance of nutrition and teeth, but with practical how-to advice. Everybody now can also contact Alaska Dental Associates for more information and any kind of consultation. This is how we make our ripples.
  • Life is an experiment, test it out. We have great ideas every day, but we must have a way to measure them to see if they are successful or not. You can use your own life to conduct experiments to unlock your potential.

Thank You’s

First, my incredibly supportive wife Natasha. She helped me daily to make sure that I had all the love, motivation, and tools I needed to conduct my experiment. And my dog Mazaa, whose butt wiggled no matter how low my energy went.

Second, my trainers at Element 3 Lifestyle: Clint Gehde and Justin Holle for helping me craft my plans going into the week, transitioning out of the week in a healthy manner, and constantly checking up on me, even a week later.

Last, my classmates from Leadership Denver 2013. Alongside me are 25 other people doing this experiment and together, we are building ourselves to be well-rounded leaders who will continue to do our best to make an impact on this world.

This article originally appeared here:


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