There are many reasons why someone would want to eat healthier—to lose weight, a doctor told them to or simply to start taking care of their body. But, if you’re like me, wanting to eat healthier doesn’t necessarily mean you will.
The reality is that a lot of us who say we want to eat healthier have no idea where to begin. That’s where grocery store dietitians come in.
Grocery store dietitians are becoming more common in the U.S. They are in-store dietitians who help customers learn to read labels and figure out what’s healthy and what’s not while they’re grocery shopping.
Beyond grocery stores, a few clinical dietitians are doing something similar. They have seen the value in visually explaining how to shop for healthy food to their patients so they meet their patients at grocery stores to show them what to do.
My friend Jessie Zoller, Registered Dietitian at JPS Health Network, does just that. Here’s what I learned on my Grocery Store Tour with her.
Grocery Store Tour
Spending an hour and a half walking through the grocery store with Jessie as my guide was enlightening. Like I said before, I’d always wanted to learn how to shop for healthier food, but I just didn’t understand how. Sure, I knew some of the basics—don’t buy sugary drinks and sodas, stay away from the candy, white bread isn’t as good as whole wheat or whole grain bread, etc.—but to actually understand how to go about shopping for healthier food and understanding the nutrition labels was something entirely different.
At the start of the tour, Jessie offered me this tip: “Always work the perimeter of the store. That’s where the healthiest and freshest food is. Everything in between is mostly processed and not good for you.”
Wow! What a way to shorten my trips to the grocery stores. Going through the center aisles is what most overwhelms and confuses me—not to mention making me grab things off the shelf that I definitely don’t need.
As I go through my grocery store tour with you, I’ll walk you through just as Jessie did—one section at a time. And keep in mind, as I refer to your plate, the proper portions you need of each nutritional food a day.
When it comes to shopping for fruits and veggies—foods you need at least 5 cups a day of—think ‘Fresh is Best, Frozen is Second and Canned is Third’. The fresh produce may not keep as long as frozen or canned goods, but a quick trip back to the store once a week just to grab your fruits and vegetables is well worth the time.
Think you might get bored of veggies? Get a variety of them and look for bright colors—or the rainbow spectrum. Then, each trip you take to the store, get a few vegetables you know you enjoy and a few you’re not as familiar with. You might be surprised to learn what you like. You can also steam your vegetables to make them more appetizing or even choose a savory and healthy dip, like hummus, to make them more appealing.
Myths to Forget
1. Potatoes, corn, peas and beans count as vegetables. Although they are vegetables and they are good for you, they are actually considered a starchy vegetable and, thus, fit the “grains” category on MyPlate.gov. They should only take up a fourth of your plate.
2. Prepackaged veggies and fruits are bad for you. Prepackaged fruits and veggies aren’t necessarily unhealthy, just watch the ingredients. The less extra ingredients they used, the better. Most of the time, they just prepackaged and precut the fruits and veggies to make it easier for you. However, buying the fruits and veggies whole is better because it’s significantly cheaper than buying the prepackaged, precut versions.
3. Organic produce is better. While there are some conveniences to buying your fruits and vegetables organic, studies have shown that there is no difference in nutritional quality. While the produce is grown in different conditions, they still have the nutritional value you need.
What about the pesticides? This is one of the biggest arguments used by pro-organic advocates–the pesticides. And while it’s a valid argument and concern, if you buy the conventional produce, you can always get a fruit scrub or soak them in water to get rid of a good portion of the pesticides yourself. For anyone still concerned about the pesticides on your fresh produce, but who don’t necessarily want to buy everything organic (due to the price), here’s a list of the “Dirty Dozen Plus” by the Environmental Working Group. This list includes the foods that have the most pesticides and what you should consider buying organic:
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Hot Peppers
- Imported Nectarines
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Collard Greens
- Summer Squash
My first question for Jessie as we entered the bread aisle was: “Whole grain or whole wheat?” I’d heard several debates over which one was better. Jessie simply replied, “Check the ingredients.”
You always want to choose “whole” foods, whether it’s “whole wheat” or “whole grain.” Looking at the ingredients, the first ingredient you should see is “whole grain/wheat” flour. For some breads, the first ingredient on the label is “enriched whole grain/wheat flour.” Enriched means some of the nutrients were taken out and then put back in. These aren’t necessarily bad for you, but it’s not the best. If you’re looking for the best, don’t choose any bread that says “enriched.” The worst choice is white bread, bread products.
Furthermore, looking at the ingredients, if it’s 5g or more of fiber, that’s considered a “high” source of fiber, which is really good! If it’s 3g of fiber, that’s considered “good.”
Next, watch the sugar: the lower the sugar count, the better.
Finally, for the diabetic, watch the carb count. If you aren’t diabetic, you shouldn’t worry too much about this part. Remember that 15g is a carb serving, and as a diabetic, you can choose 3-4 carb servings at one meal, so if 1 slice of bread is 1.5 carb choices, that’s a lot.
Look for lean cuts of meat—turkey, chicken, etc. For vegetarians, make sure you’re getting your protein elsewhere—dairy or rice and bean combinations, for instance.
As you’re looking at meats, watch serving size, and then watch saturated fat and cholesterol when looking at red meats. For meats, look for:
- Cholesterol under 95mg
- Sat. Fat less than 4.5g
- Fat less than 10g
The best thing to look for in red meat is those labeled lean ground beef.
If you’ve gotten into the coconut oil fad as of late, this section may shock you. When looking for oils, look at the fats on the nutrition label. You’ll need to understand what fats are good and what fats are not.
- Saturated Fats = Bad
- Trans Fats = Bad
- Monounsaturated Fats = Good
- Polyunsaturated Fats = Good
You need fats in your diet to properly function, but you want the good ones, not the bad ones. Therefore, as you’re looking at oils, pick the ones that are low in saturated and trans fats and high in monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Here’s a chart of the oils with the breakdown of their fat count:
Jessie recommends getting the Canola Oil or the Olive Oil when shopping for oils.
Your focus for choosing cereal should be Serving Size, Calories and Sugar. Serving size is our biggest downfall when it comes to cereal. We overdo it. If you actually take the cereal you buy and measure out one serving size, you may be fairly disappointed in what you can actually eat. Look for cereals that give you more per serving.
Or, trick your mind into thinking there is more when you go to pour your cereal. Put it into a small bowl or a cup with the correct serving size and you’ll think you have more than you actually do.
Second, look at calories. Some cereals are very high in sugars, which can cause that calorie-count to spike.
What Constitutes a Good Cereal Apart from Serving Size and Calories?
- 3g or less of fat
- 1g or less of sat. fat
- Less than 10g of sugars
- 5g or more of fiber (3g is a good source of fiber but 5g is considered a high source of fiber, which many doctors recommend)
- If you’re diabetic, remember that 15g is one carb choice
Following these tips may leave you with a plainer cereal, but just remember that you can always dress it up yourself with cinnamon, oatmeal, Splenda, honey, etc. When you add your own fixings on top, you control how many calories you put in.
You’ll begin to see a pattern with what you should look for in your dairy products based on what you’ve learned so far in the other grocery sections. Here’s what you should be looking for in dairy:
- Fat: 3g or less
- Sodium: 140mg or less (this is considered low sodium, so if you’re not watching sodium intake, it’s okay to go over this amount a little)
- Calcium: 15% or more
- Calories: 60 or less
(You’ll find these requirements mostly in low-fat or fat-free cheeses)
- Butter: Similar requirements to oils. Look at the fats.
- Yogurt: Sugar is the main thing to look for in yogurt. Greek yogurt is a very good choice, and it has extra protein. Nonfat plain is one of the best. It has a low sugar count (9g) compared to even nonfat vanilla yogurt (27g of sugar). That’s a significant difference! Go with the plain and dress it up yourself at home. You’ll surely put in a lot less sugar than the other brands in the store. Also, look at the serving size.
- Milk: The best milks to choose are skim or 1%. If lactose intolerant, there’s a Lactaid milk or Almond milk. The only downside to these brands for those who are lactose intolerant is that you’re getting less nutrients than regular milk (5 vs. 9 nutrients).
If you’re looking for a dietitian near you, search grocery stores for an on-site dietitian. Ask them if they can walk you through the store, showing you what you should and should not choose. If you can’t find a dietitian who can help, try out what we’ve talked about here. Print off this list and take it with you to the grocery store so you can make sure you are choosing the right foods.
A Healthy Grocery Shopping List
As you shop, you may find that some foods are more expensive than what you normally pay, but keep in mind that there are always ways to cut down on your spending.
“A lot of people complain about the high cost of healthy foods,” Jessie says of this particular question, “but there are ways to cut down on your spending (couponing, for example), but the overall benefit would be not paying for doctor’s visits and treatment later on in life, or even in the present. It’s preventative and totally worth it.”
How do you shop for healthy food?
Wealth of good information, presented in a easy to understand format.
Thank you very much.
Great article and very helpful. Already use a lot of the suggestions but also was able to learn some new ones which are very helpful. Enjoyed.
Thank you. Glad it was helpful for you!