Do you often hear people state “the healthiest way to shop at the grocery store is to just shop the perimeter?” I do, and they are wrong. I can find a lot of “unhealthy” products in the perimeter, and I can find “healthy” items down the inner aisles. Let’s take a look.
Starting with the produce aisle, of course all the fresh produce is a good healthy choice. Nutritionally, there is no difference between organic and traditionally grown fruits and vegetables, but there is a much lower level of pesticides in organic produce. Your goal is to have a variety of 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.
So what’s not great about the produce aisle? There are a lot of non-produce items, such as “energy” bars, which are often high in calories and sugar. Need energy? Eat some carbs, think fruits and vegetables. I also see a lot of “crunchy/crispy” items, some are OK in moderation. If you want to add any of these “crunchy/crispy” items to your salad don’t forget to read the nutrition label and look at the serving size, calories, fat, and sodium. I’m also starting to see a lot of “juices” in the produce aisle, which are high in calories and contain no fiber – once again the real thing is a better choice.
In the meat, poultry, fish and seafood section choose the lean cuts. For beef and pork that would be the “loin” cuts: tenderloin, sirloin, and even fillet mignon. For poultry it is OK to purchase with the skin on, just discard before eating. You can find fish as either “wild caught” or “farm raised”. If you see the “color added” sign that means “farmed”. For good choices I like to use the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app, don’t have a smart phone? No problem, you can also download a handy pocket guide. This app/guide will list best choices for your geographic location.
So what’s a bad choice in the meat/poultry/fish/seafood section? Personally, I don’t like to buy items that are pre-marinated because they are typically very high in sodium. I’m also seeing a lot of packages that state something like “just add chicken” to this sauce to make a meal. Once again these packages are very high in sodium and usually high in sugar too. Need a marinade? I’ve got one for you, just click here.
Moving on to the dairy section you can find a variety of “milks” and yogurts. Some good, some I wouldn’t drink or eat. You need to read the labels. A lot of the alternative milk products are high in “added” sugar and may even contain salt. Then there is the confusion in the yogurt section, which to choose – Greek or regular? Greek will be higher in protein and lower in calcium and regular is the opposite. Look for “clean” yogurts, no added pectins, chemicals, or “added fiber”; yogurt is not a fiber food. The ingredients label for the yogurt I buy simply states “Grade A pasteurized skimmed milk, live active yogurt cultures (L. bulgaricus, S. Thermophilus, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus, L. Casei)”. Also, I suggest you buy plain yogurt (no added sugar) and add your own fruit and/or nuts. All milk and yogurt products are a rich source of calcium, about 300 mg or 30% Daily Value per cup. Often lactose intolerance is caused by the fact you may lack the enzyme “lactase” which helps to break down the lactose (sugar) in the milk, if this is you, you may want to try Lactaid milk. Also, most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate yogurt, because the lactose is already broken down, you may need to start slowly when introducing this to your diet. And don’t forget the eggs; they are a great source of protein.
Now for the most confusing area: the bread section! Every package cries out to you as “healthy” by using words such as “multigrain” or “wheat” bread, and a lot of them are brown in color making you think these are “whole” grain breads. I don’t even read the front of a bread package anymore – I go straight to the nutrition label. If you are looking for “whole” grain bread, the first word on the ingredient list should be the word “whole”. Or you can look for the number of fiber grams; a good choice will have at least 3-5 grams per slice. Also, this surprises a lot of people, but bread is the number one hidden source of sodium, some breads have over 300 mg of sodium per slice.
OK, now let’s break that myth about not shopping down the inner aisles of the store. Here are some items I would suggest to purchase.
Cereal: good source of whole grains, look for cereals that are low in fat (3 grams (g) or less), low in sugar (10 g or less) and moderate-to-high in dietary fiber (5 g or more).
Canned foods: low-sodium beans, seafood (packed in water), fruit (in own juices), evaporated skim milk (good substitute for heavy cream), canned pumpkin (can make soups and dips from this), tomato (paste, sauce, whole, diced, etc.), low-sugar marinara/pasta sauce.
Nuts & Seeds: Are a healthy snack, they contain good fats, but watch your serving size, they are high in calories.
Grains: brown rice, wild rice, barley, bulgur, farro, quinoa, kasha, whole wheat pasta. Try something new.
Beans: dried – a whole variety available, a great source of protein and very cost effective.
Oils: avocado, canola, grape seed, olive, peanut, walnut.
Vinegar: apple cider, balsamic, distilled white, rice.
Drinks: coffee, tea, 100% fruit juice (watch serving size, juices are high in calories)
Soups: low-sodium broths/stocks, low-sodium soups (watch out for fat in cream based soups).
Freezer: fruits and vegetables (no sauces).
This is not an all-inclusive list, but as you can see there are many healthy items available when shopping in the inner aisles of the grocery store. One way to get started with healthier shopping and eating is to have a few goals in mind, such as:
Eat les sodium and salt, excess sodium/salt in your diet can raise blood pressure and put you at higher risk of heart disease.
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, these are high in nutrients and fiber and low in calories.
Eat more fiber, fiber keeps the digestive tract healthy and can help lower the risk of heart disease.
Also, it helps to shop from a list and do not shop hungry!