Sometimes, as a health conscious shopper, entering a supermarket can feel like stepping into battle. All around are war-painted sale advertisements, and we, the shoppers, are the soldiers. Our choices, the items we select like weapons to earn a place in our carts, will determine what we will eat for the coming week. Decoys, junk food masquerading as healthy products, seem to lurk on every shelf. Many experts have bestowed upon us strategies for navigating this rocky terrain, assuring us that of we follow their rules, we will come out alive.
Food shopping, eating healthfully: these are not battles to be fought and won, and so many of these "rules" with which we arm ourselves are well-intentioned but missing the bigger picture. As a dietitian who has worked on the supposed "front line," the grocery store, there are certain food shopping mantras that make me, well... cringe. I'm here today to expose the myths, explain the truths, and help you move from food shopping foot soldier to grocery guru: confident, well-informed, and at peace with your choices.
Grocery Store Mantras I Wish Would Go Away:
1. Shop the perimeter because that is where all of the healthy products are.
The perimeter of the store has plenty of products that, as a dietitian, I don't recommend for regular consumption: juice, red and processed meats, baked goods, cheese, and very sugary yogurts, to name a few. Additionally, there are wonderfully nutritious foods in the center of the store: dried beans, all-natural peanut and almond butter, nuts and seeds in general, low sodium tomato products, herbal teas, and I could go on.
2. Fresh vegetables are healthier than canned or frozen.
Let's start with the frozen vegetables, which are, in fact, astonishingly nutritious. These veggies are picked at the peak of ripeness and frozen within hours to lock in nutrients, while fresh may travel thousands of miles over several days to reach the store. Be sure to look for frozen vegetables without added sauces, flavorings, or salt, but otherwise, they are an equally nutritious choice to fresh. Canned also retain a large quantity of nutrients, and there are many low- and no-sodium varieties. The snag is that cans are often lined with BPA or other chemicals, so although I would rather shoppers choose canned vegetables than none at all, I recommend fresh or frozen first.
3. Avoid all processed food.
There isn't a dietitian out there who would actively recommend foods like soda, spray cheese, and shelf-stable pepperoni. However, the term "processed" has taken on a slightly jaded meaning in the 21st century. Originally, a processed food was anything that wasn't in its raw state: triple washed lettuce, plain rolled oats, extra-virgin olive oil, and frozen broccoli florets are all, technically, "processed" foods. Additionally, everyone eats even the less nutritious "processed" foods now and then; they are not "bad" or forbidden. Choose them sparingly, at times when you will most savor them, and look for ones with fewer unfamiliar ingredients.
These "rules" only pit one food, one shopper against another and help perpetuate the battle-like atmosphere of food and health. Instead of fighting, consider these tips to help clear your mind and approach the sometimes daunting task of food shopping with peace:
Try not to go shopping on an empty stomach. The hungrier you are, the more likely you are to veer from your shopping list, distracted by impulse items (I'm looking at you, gourmet ice cream marked down to a hard-to-resist price). These items are perfectly ok to buy now and then if you so choose, but doing so while clouded by hunger can lead to hasty decisions that you wouldn't otherwise make.
Approach new items with curiosity, but skepticism. Packaging is designed to make you want to pick it up. From the colors to the adjectives, everything is beautifully orchestrated to send you a specific message. Some of these new products may, in fact, be nutritious additions to your diet, but others are merely capitalizing on the increase in health-conscious shoppers. Always double check the ingredients, nutrition panel, and good, old fashioned common sense.
In the end, remember that rarely will one item make or break your health goals. For every helpful rule, there is an exception. Explore new foods with an open mind but not reckless abandon. And, perhaps most importantly of all, always be your own health advocate in the grocery store, and in life.