Grocery shopping can be a tricky chore when trying to live a fit life. We are fortunate to live in a country with an abundance of food choices. But abundance has its disadvantages, most notably, making it difficult to make decisions about what to buy due to confusing information and product overload. Also media reports about what is and isn’t healthy are constantly changing and often contradictory. Food fads emerge seemingly out of nowhere and rarely prove to be the nutritional panacea that were promised. So the following are some simple tips to help you successfully and quickly sort through the madness and get the biggest nutritional bang for your buck:
- Make a list and stick to it: Studies have shown that shoppers who have a list purchase fewer impulse products, which tend to be the most processed and calorie dense. Another trick is to go to the store with a set amount of cash that should cover only what you need and leave the credit and debit cards at home.
- Shop the perimeter: Most grocers have produce, meat and dairy along the perimeter of the store with processed foods lining the aisles. If you have a list, you can get the proteins, fruits and vegetables that you need along the perimeter and go down only the aisles that contain the other items you need. When buying fruits and vegetables, think of putting a rainbow on your plate. The colors of fruits and veggies offer clues to the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients contained within. If you consume a variety of colors, you’re consuming a good balance of nutrition. When it comes to meats, choose lean cuts and avoid processed meats. With dairy, look for low-fat and minimally processed.
- Read labels: Don’t roll your eyes at this one! If you know what you’re looking for, this is quick and easy. It’s true that a general rule of thumb is the longer the ingredient list, the more processed and less nutritious the product. However, some products add vitamins/minerals and others may add a mix of whole grains in one product. These products will have longer lists but aren’t necessarily less nutritious. Better to have in mind some key ingredients that you want, want to avoid and those you want to limit. This way you can quickly scan the label, make a decision and move on. Read all labels, some seemingly healthy products, like yogurt, can contain an alarming amount of ingredients you want to avoid or limit.
- You want: On the nutrition grid, look for foods that have fiber and protein, even if it’s just a little of each. On the ingredient list: whole grains (preferably 100%) and other whole products such as nuts, fruits, seeds, vegetables, legumes, dairy and healthy fats (such as olive and canola oils). If the word “whole” isn’t in front of a grain listed (wheat, oat, semolina, etc) then it isn’t whole.
- You want to avoid: On the nutrition grid, products that have high amounts of sugars and sodium. In the ingredient list, avoid products with trans fats (hydrogenated oils), high fructose corn syrup, enriched wheat flour and sugar substitutes (such as aspartame and sucralose). And remember, the closer to the top of the list, the more of it there is.
- You want to limit: meaning these should be near the end of the ingredient list: added sugars (such as cane sugar, honey), salt and tropical oils. On the nutrition grid, make note of the saturated fat content as you want to keep that number low.
Food marketers latch onto nutrition fads because they make big money for as long as the fad lasts. Fat-free, gluten-free and organic are some of the buzz words that food makers put on their product packaging because they know consumers will automatically believe these products are more nutritious. However, this isn’t necessarily so. For example, we all need fat in our diets. In fact, some vitamins and minerals can’t be absorbed by the body unless there is the presence of fat. Some fats, like mono-unsaturated found in olive oil and nuts, are actually heart-healthy when consumed in modest amounts. In addition, when fat is taken out of a food product, it is often replaced by a high amount of the ingredients that we should be limiting or avoiding. Fat-free dressings and some yogurts are examples of this.
Gluten is a naturally-occurring protein in wheat and other grains that gives elasticity to bread and other doughs. There is a small percentage of the population (under 5%, according to estimates) that is allergic or sensitive to gluten, such as those who have Celiac Disease. But for the rest of the population, gluten is perfectly safe and there is no heightened nutritional value to products simply because they have an absence of gluten. For products that need gluten, what are the manufacturers putting in to replace it? It’s possible gluten is being replaced with something unhealthy in comparison. Yet gluten-free is currently the fastest growing food fad according to recent surveys. People who can consume gluten with no ill effect – about 29% of us – are actively avoiding gluten believing it is healthier to do so.
The word organic is strictly enforced by the FDA. Food companies can’t put the word on their products unless they are truly organic. But organic does not equal more nutritious. The health benefit of buying organic comes from limiting the amount of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and, in the case of animal products, antibiotics and artificial growth hormones in your foods. One can argue that the absence of these substances makes the foods healthier but they are not nutritionally superior in terms of vitamins and nutrients nor do they have fewer calories than their non-organic versions. This is best illustrated by noting packages of candy or cookies with the organic label. Buying fruits and veggies with an organic label makes sense, but buying a processed product with the organic label (and a higher price tag) doesn’t.
Bottom line: If you ignore the buzz words on the packaging and look instead at the label as described above, you’ll be much better served. Armed with a list and a little bit of knowledge you can confidently fill your grocery bags with nothing but good-for-you foods.
Author’s Note: I am an exercise professional, not a nutrition professional. My food recommendations are based on the most current science-backed information provided by nutrition professionals in the fitness industry publications I receive and my personal experience. Mine are general recommendations that are in line with the guidelines published by the US Dept of Health and Human Services for apparently healthy individuals. If you have a health condition that requires dietary restrictions, I recommend consulting a medical doctor or registered dietician before making any changes to your diet.