Grocery Shopping 101

Many of us would like to improve the quality of what we eat, but honestly don’t know how to assure that we’re doing so.  There is much conflicting information about food, and the average grocery store offers an overwhelming number of options to consider.  It can seem too hard to figure out what to do, so many of us defer to choices based on what tastes the best and is most convenient; unfortunately, this generally results in much lower food quality.

Here then, is a list of ten shopping strategies to move you in a better direction.  If you only do one of these, it will give you worthwhile improvement; the more of them you do, the better it gets.  You don’t have to do them all at once; in fact, adopting one or two at a time is actually a better way to assure that you are able to stick with them over the long term.  Good luck!

1. Consider shopping more often.  This takes a bit more time, but pays off in much higher dietary quality.  If you shop as seldom as possible you’re more likely – by necessity – to buy large quantities of food (which triggers overeating) and to focus more on processed food (for its longer shelf life) which is of much lower nutritional quality.  By contrast, if you make it a habit to stock up once or twice a week, you can easily keep an ongoing supply of fresh, real food (fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grain products) and keep it present in smaller quantities that encourage a more controlled level of consumption.

2. Do most of your shopping around the perimeter of the store.  This is where you’ll find most of the real food; it’s located around the edges of the store for easy access by store personnel because, due to its perishability and high turn-over, it is frequently restocked.  The inner aisles are populated by processed foods that are known for their long shelf lives; restocking occurs much less frequently.  Some basic household staples will be found in the inner aisles, but most of that shelf space is devoted to items that may be tasty and/or convenient, but which give much less (or no) nutritional bang for the buck.

3. Shop from a list, and promise yourself that any spontaneous, in-the-store choices will be restricted to household necessities and real food.  Disorganized, unhealthy eating is associated with lack of planning, so you can begin to fix that problem right at the beginning, during the shopping phase of the process.  As you become more planful about your food, you will naturally begin to eat with higher quality, having set it up that way with what you buy.  Sticking to your list also protects you from being tempted by food packaging/marketing designed to entice you into impulse-buying of low-quality foods.  

4. Buy locally-produced fresh food whenever you can.  Locally-produced food is less likely to have come from a factory farm, where chemical usage and contamination problems are more prevalent.  Locally-produced food has spent much less time traveling to the grocer, and is therefore fresher when you get it (as well as having a much smaller carbon-footprint).

5. Shop the organic/health/natural food section of your grocery store for at least some of your needs, as this is where most of the healthier food choices are.  If you don’t have the time or patience for label-reading and really need to just run through the store grabbing things, you are more likely to grab helpful food items in this section.  You will also pay more, but that’s the cost of not educating yourself so that you can be healthier and save money at the same time.  It’s not true that every item in the health food section is “good for you” any more than it’s true that every item out in the main store is “bad for you.”  Label-reading is the way to get the best of both worlds, and you only have to do a lot of label-reading when you’re first setting your new choices up; once you know what they are, you just run in to the store and quickly grab them as you do now, only the quality will be much higher.

6. Pay more attention to the back and sides of the food package than to the front when you do buy processed foods.  Front labels are just marketing tools designed to draw attention and impress you.  Don’t be fooled by labels that include buzz-words like “healthy,” “lean,” “low cholesterol,” “low fat,” “low sodium,” “heart-healthy,” and the like.  Look instead at the nutritional information, and as you compare similar food items that you think you’ll enjoy, look specifically for:

7. Look for whole-grain products when selecting breads, cereals, and pasta.  Whole grains give you complex carbohydrates, a valuable source of nutrition.  If the label doesn’t say “whole grain,” it’s not, no matter how otherwise suggestive of healthy eating the food’s name may be.  Quick-cooking rices, soft/doughy breads and baked snack foods are generally based on “refined” grains, meaning that the outer husk of the grain (where most of the nutrients are) has been ground away, leaving only the pulpy middle for use in the product.  Refining turns whole-grains with their highly useful complex carbs into nutritionally barren, simple carb products.  “Enriching” refined grains simply refers to artificially adding back some of the vitamins that were removed in refinement; as nice a word as “enriched” is, the end product is inferior to the whole-grain version.

8. Avoid high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as much as you can.  This will be hard, because HFCS is now so widely used, and shows up in some very surprising places.  HFCS is a very cheap corn by-product that manufacturers like to use because it reduces their costs, and that we like to consume because of its palatability.  Unfortunately, it has no nutritional value at all for the many calories it supplies, and seems to trigger repeat-eating for many people; you’ll notice that HFCS is a staple ingredient of many junk foods.  Soft drinks are a common source of HFCS and are best avoided; diet soft drinks aren’t any better, as they contain chemicals that are now thought to affect the brain in ways that actually promote weight gain.

9. Avoid partially-hydrogenated oils as much as you can.  These show up in many junk foods, but also even in some foods that are supposed to be better for you.  Partially-hydrogenated oils seemed like an incredible find, years ago when they were developed:  Food manufacturers loved them because these oils increased both shelf-life and palatability of their products, while we loved them because they gave our foods much better taste and mouth feel.  Sadly, partially-hydrogenated oils are the man-made source of the most dangerous dietary fat currently known (trans fat), and we are now working on gradually getting them out of the food supply.  This will take years, so it’s up to the consumer to read labels and choose accordingly.

10. Finally, don’t assume that “they” are assuring the safety and nutrition of your food.  Who might “they” be, anyway?  Not the food manufacturers, whose only mandate is to make you a repeat customer; they do this by providing foods that are tasty and convenient rather than nutritional – if you want nutrition, you’re going to have make an effort to look for it.  “They” also are not the government; the food industry is much less regulated and more swayed by politics than you might realize.  There are many more damaging food choices available than healthy ones; if you don’t make a point of seeking quality for yourself, no one else will – it is no one else’s job but yours, and you’re on duty every time you shop. 

Copyright © 2009, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.


Related articles:

Are You a Compulsive Eater?  Test Yourself and See...

Fat: Important New Findings
Raising Kids to be Emotionally Balanced with Food 
What Are Complex Carbohydrates and Why Should You Care? 
Your Weight May Not be the Problem 



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