As grocery stores have become bigger—offering everything from breakfast cereal to printer cartridges– they have also become a bit overwhelming. When shopping for food, simpler is better. And simpler is usually healthier as well. Here are some tips for healthy grocery shopping:
• Stick to the perimeter of the store for the bulk of your purchases. That’s where you’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy and breads. The greener and leafier, the better, so avoid iceberg lettuce in favor of spinach or kale. Different colored veggies offer different nutrients, so mix things up.
• Buy organic whenever possible. The offerings have increased exponentially, and the prices have come down. While before it was almost prohibitively expensive to buy organic produce, meats and milk, many stores now offer store brand products at much more reasonable prices. There are many different organic labels out there, but only one relates directly to foods: the USDA Organic seal. Growers and manufacturers of organic products bearing this seal have to meet the strictest standards of any of the currently available organic labels. This seal is one of your best assurances of organic quality, so if it doesn’t carry the USDA Organic seal, you might not be getting what you’re paying for.
• Eat whole grains and complex carbohydrates rather than refined flours and sugars. Brown rice is better for you than white. Sweet potatoes have more nutrients than white. If some of the dense, sprouted grain breads are a little too much for you, at least eat whole wheat. But check labels—some of these breads can contain high fructose corn syrup, which should be avoided at all costs. We’ll cover that in another blog!
• Check labels in the frozen food aisles. While it’s not a bad idea to have some frozen veggies and berries on hand, some frozen foods are made for “convenience” which translates as expensive and filled with salt. You’ll invariably see what looks like a brick wall of frozen “lean” meals that are easy to microwave and only 230 calories. First of all, the tiny servings (if you’re an active person) won’t hold you until the next meal or snack. More importantly, however, the ingredients can be downright scary. Convenience can be healthy. Make a pot of brown rice and bake some skinless chicken breasts on the weekend. When you get home from work, warm them up and make a spinach salad topped with walnuts and goat cheese. That’s about as convenient as you can get, as well as satisfying and packed with nutrients.
• Buy the bulk of your food in the middle aisles. With the exception of rice, olive oils, dried beans and other staples, many of the food items in this area of the grocery store are fraught with refined sugars, flours and ingredients that would take a chemistry degree to translate. If the label is long and the ingredients tough to pronounce, better to steer clear.
• Fall for the phrases “low fat” and “sugar free”. While perhaps enticing to those in search of healthier choices, these products aren’t necessarily better for you. “Low fat” might mean that some of the fat was replaced with more sugar, and “sugar free” products might be loaded with sugar substitutes such as aspartame—considered by many to be a neurotoxin.
• Shop when you’re hungry. It has become an old adage, but it’s true. Everything looks good when you haven’t eaten in hours, but better senses prevail on a full stomach.
• Be under the false impression that “all natural” is best. There are plenty of “natural” substances that I wouldn’t want in a sandwich. Read labels, and know what you’re putting in your body.
• Buy a bucket of margarine and think that you’re doing your body good by slathering it on whole wheat toast. Margarine contains chemicals such as hexane and other solvents (used in the extraction process), bleach and artificial coloring (the natural color of hydrogenated vegetable oil is grey), to name a few. Butter, on the other hand, is a rich source of vitamin A and other fat soluble vitamins such as D (which is sorely lacking in the modern diet). And yes, it contains cholesterol which, although considered a dietary villain, is necessary for intestinal and brain health as well as nervous system development in children. Have a little, but have the real thing.
• Avoid red meat entirely. High quality, grass-fed meats are highly nutritious and should not be considered “taboo”.
While this all may sound complicated, it really boils down to common sense. Food should be fresh and simple. Additives and chemicals are best avoided. Fat, sugar and salt can be hidden ingredients, so read labels. Once you get in the habit of using these guidelines when shopping, both your body (and your wallet) will thank you.