Nutrition Articles

Supermarket Strategies

Take a trip down the aisle and shop your way to better health

By Vanessa Selene Williams

Been seduced by the supermarket? We all may know grocery stores are designed to distract us by appealing to our senses while they’re picking our pockets. What we may not know is they may also be sabotaging healthy food choices in the process.

The moment we enter the store, an aroma of fat-laden baked goods hits our noses. Cruise down the cookie aisle, the enticing portrait of empty calories meet our eyes. And, what’s meeting us at the frozen food aisle? Samples of velvety fudge ice cream that’s screaming "Buy me now!" It seems like we’re being attacked from every direction before we even have the opportunity to purchase food. By learning how to avoid those traps, navigate the supermarket and make healthy choices, we become one step closer to achieving our goals whether it’s losing weight, gaining energy or maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Read further for tips on shopping your way to better health..

Before going to the store, remember these two rules: Don’t shop while hungry—a growling stomach always leads you astray; and make a shopping list and stick to it—a list prevents you from choosing the naughty choices over the nice. OK, now we are ready for a trip down the aisle.

Produce aisle

Ask yourself which fruits and vegetables are in season. "The quickest and the best tasting fruits and vegetables are those that are in season," explains Cathy Kapica, Ph.D., R.D., senior scientist at Quaker Foods and Beverages. Not only does choosing those fruits and veggies support your local farmers, but they’re also a sound nutritional choice. They are fresher, more flavorful, and, since they don’t take a trip from Timbuktu, a more nutritious choice. Another tip: Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables with contrasting and rich hues. Deep colors are a measure for the nutrients inside. For instance, spinach packs more vitamin A, vitamin C and iron—as well as more disease fighting phytonutrients—than its feeble cousin, iceberg lettuce.

While you’re there, don’t forget to load up. "What you want to do is purchase fresh produce for the first three or four days after the grocery trip," says Melanie R. Polk, M.M.Sc., R.D., F.A.D.A., director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research. "After that, the nutritional value is going to start to wane." That’s when you turn to the frozen or canned variety.


What’s the next best thing to fresh produce? "Frozen vegetables and berries are wonderful! They are fresher than the stuff on the produce isle because many are frozen right at the field within hours of being harvested," emphasizes Kim Jordan, R.D., C.N.S.D.,president of HealthShop, a grocery industry-consulting firm. This preserves nutrients plus it may have more sensitive nutrients like vitamin C than their "fresh" counterparts. Steer clear, however, of frozen foods with added sauces.

Canned fruits and vegetables may not the best way, but it’s better than not eating vegetables or fruit at all, notes Therese Franzese, M.S., R.D., director of nutrition at Chelsea Piers. Vitamins are lost during processing of many fruits and vegetables. Plus, most canned vegetables have added salt and most fruits have added sugar. While it’s true most produce lose vitamins during processing, canned goods like corn and tomatoes actually get better when canned. When choosing canned products pick vegetables with no salt added and fruits packed in their own fruit juices.

Breads, pastas and grains

At this point your cart should be full of fruits and vegetables. Next, purchase your bread, pasta and grains. The key is to stay away from stripped grains and opt for whole-grain foods. "No matter what your budget, buy whole-grains—brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, bulgur (cracked wheat). The white stuff is OK but the whole-grain versions have five times the nutrition per serving," Jordan says. Whole-grain products add a richer nuttier taste while adding a dose of fiber to your diet. But don’t be fooled by white in wheat’s clothing. Rather than choosing bread based on appearance and misleading names, glance at the ingredient label under the nutrition facts. Food made with whole grains list whole-wheat flour first on the ingredients label.

Cereal aisle

"Women who choose cereal for breakfast get more of the recommended vitamins and minerals, and they tend to weigh less," Kapica says. Like bread and pastas, when choosing cereals think whole-wheat. Choose cereals like oatmeal, no matter what type—instant, old-fashion—are whole grains. Other good cereal choices include bran, granola and cream of wheat. Also, look at the label and ensure that your cereal meets at least 25 percent of the daily requirement for nutrients like folate, calcium and iron. But don’t go overboard because the body only can absorb a certain amount; the rest is wasted.

Dairy products

What’s cereal without milk? Dairy foods (milk and cheese) are a convenient source of protein and calcium. It’s also, unfortunately, a convenient source of saturated fat. Stay away from whole milk and whole-milk products. "Most milk, regardless of the fat content, has 8 grams of protein per 8 ounce," Franzese says.


When choosing meat, vary it and stick to low-fat cuts. Each type has its own merits. Red meat provides zinc, selenium and iron; it’s also a rich source of protein. When choosing cuts of meat choose anything that says "loin." That’s cuts like tenderloin, sirloin or loin chops. Fish is always a good choice, especially fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. Fish provides important fatty acids, which may prevent cardiac disease and maybe even depression. From a protein perspective, fish is also a good source. And, you can never go wrong with skinless chicken. Don’t forget your eggs. "Despite their bad rap, eggs are still the golden measures for all proteins. They are easy, low in calories and packed with nutrients. If you eat them one or two days per week, you are not to worry about the cholesterol risk," Franzese says.

Protein-rich foods

Meat, beans, nuts, tofu and lentils are versatile and a rich source of protein. For a quick and potent source of protein, pick up a jar of all-natural peanut butter or the peanuts alone. When purchasing beans, choose canned products over dried since they are easier and faster to cook—and you avoid the gas attack. But, be sure you rinse canned beans thoroughly to remove excess salt.

Healthy cooking oils.

While fats should be limited, all cooking oil is not the same. Choose oils high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. The two best oils to choose from are canola and olive oil. Canola oil contains the least saturated fat while olive oil contains the most monounsaturated fat. Another good choice is vegetable oil cooking spray, which allows you to spray a small amount on the pan for the desired effect.

Prepackaged foods.

If you don’t have time to cook, prepackaged foods can offer a quick solution. But be careful when choosing packaged food. Polk has three rules: 1) stick to foods with less than 300 calories; 2) aim for foods with less than 10 grams of fat or less than 30 percent of the calories from fat; and 3) aim for foods with low sodium, less than 800 milligrams.

Like prepackaged foods, be selective when buying packaged meats. Usually these foods are loaded with sodium, fat and nitrates. Aim for cold cuts with less than 2 grams of fat and 140 milligrams of sodium per slice. And look at the nutrition facts label rather than the packages because some foods have misleading labels.

A full cart. By now you have a cart full of healthy fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, beans and dairy products and maybe one snack to indulge yourself. This is essential. Since we all tend to eat what we have at home, being surrounded by healthy choices and good influences helps you evolve into a healthier and maybe even happier you.

Sample shopping list:

Prepackaged baby carrots
Prepackaged salad with romaine lettuce
Red grapes
Frozen broccoli stir fry
Frozen vegetables
Canned fruit salad packed in fruit juice
Canned tomatoes, low sodium

Brown rice
Whole-wheat pasta

Navy beans
Garbanzo beans
All-natural peanut butter

Ground sirloin
Skinless chicken breast
Canned tuna
Fresh or canned salmon

Low-fat yogurt
Low-fat cottage cheese
Skim milk
Part-skim mozzarella

Whole-wheat cereal
Raisin Bran
Granola (low fat)

Fats and oils
Trans-free tub margarine
Canola oil
Olive oil
Vegetable oil spray

Low-fat microwave popcorn
Whole-wheat pretzels
Dried fruit
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