As much as we’d like to blame restaurants for America’s (mostly) unhealthy eating habits, the truth is that the majority of the junk we consume comes from the grocery store–after all, most of us eat at home more often than we do out. (All those snacks and “in-between” meals add up.) With that in mind, here are some tips for shopping smarter:
Do most of your shopping at the edges of the store. With the glaring exceptions of baking supplies, oils & vinegars, and canned fruits & vegetables, most of what’s in the center aisles is Junk. (And yes, I do mean that with a capital J.) Shelves upon shelves of highly-sweetened, stripped-and-then-fortified cereals await. So do processed baked goods: cookies, crackers, breakfast muffins…you can bet 99% of those are packing hydrogenated oil, corn syrup, and/or [nutritionally-pointless] white flour. Then there’s the frozen-food department with its array of tempting pizzas, frozen dinners, and snacks. (Though again, the frozen produce here is worth visiting. The occasional pint of all-natural ice cream isn’t bad, either.) So stay away from the center and focus on the edges. That’s where you’ll find the produce, dairy, and meat/fish departments. Some stores have started including the organic-food section along the edges as well–our job just got easier!
If nothing else, remember this: the healthiest things don’t come with nutrition labels. Those items would be fruits and vegetables.
The harder a product is trying to convince you that it’s healthy, the less healthy it probably is. (See above point.) There isn’t an FDA rule that says a product must be 100% whole-wheat if the package says “whole-wheat.” That “whole-wheat” ingredient could be last on the label; the food companies are counting on the consumer to not bother to look. And all the fortifying in the world can’t make up for simply leaving the food whole and intact to begin with. (White flour is a great example of this–before the advent of “value-added” refining processes, ALL wheat flour was whole-wheat.)
Read ALL the ingredients on something before you buy it. If you get tired of reading before you hit the end of the list, that means that the product contains far, far too many chemicals and man-made ingredients. Put it back on the shelf. And always be aware of hydrogenated oil and corn syrup, the two ingredients you should never consume. (For more info on this, see “Sweeteners” and “Margarine/Hydrogenated Oils.” )
Resolve not to be tempted by the the junk in the check-out aisles. If you’re bored while you’re standing in line, flip through a magazine.
And the best tip: do the bulk of your grocery shopping at your local produce market, where the vast majority of what’s available is healthy. (Not coincidentally, you probably won’t find center aisles in a produce market.) Other good options would be health-oriented chains such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.