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Harvard Health Blog
Eating better: 3 keys to healthy grocery shopping
- By Dominic Wu, MD, Contributing Editor
With the New Year a few months behind us now, hectic schedules and daily distractions have gotten in the way of our most well intended resolutions. If you are still looking to work on being healthier this year, eating healthier is a good option that may be easier than it seems.
As Hippocrates (the “father” of modern medicine) once said, “Let food be thy medicine, and thy medicine thy food.” We are realizing more and more how much our daily behaviors and our food choices impact our health and well-being. There are many factors that can get in the way of our efforts to lead a healthy lifestyle including busy schedules, lack of access to fresh produce, and smart advertising by the food industry. These three tips can help you overcome some of the barriers to healthy eating.
1. Plan ahead: Get more out of your weekly grocery store trips by writing down exactly what you need. If you ever find yourself in the supermarket wandering aimlessly down the aisles, you might discover that a lot of food unintentionally ends up in your basket, including many impulse purchases that you should never really eat! You might find it helpful to put up a post-it note on your fridge, and write items on the note throughout the week so that writing a shopping list isn’t as daunting. You could also take a photo of the inside of your fridge and your pantry with your phone so you can refer to it while you are at the grocery store. When you are nearing the checkout line, beware the temptations next to the conveyor belt. They’re there because you probably didn’t know you were craving any of it, but the stores know that if they put them in your face, you just might.
2. Read nutrition labels: Food marketing teams realized a while back that we, the consumers, want healthy food — and they know exactly how to target us. Large print on labels now claims “low fat,” “low sugar,” “all natural.” But to really be sure you’re getting something healthy, you should investigate deeper and study the nutrition label on the back of each package.
First step: notice the serving size. Is the fat and sugar content for the entire container of yogurt, or just for a quarter cup? Food companies don’t have to report ingredients occurring at less than 0.5 grams in the specific serving size, which can confuse the consumer and convince them the food is healthy. For example, if a product contains unhealthy ingredients such as trans fat, the company may elect to decrease the serving size until the amount of trans fat per serving is less than 0.5 grams, so they can report it as “0 grams of trans fat.” The tricky part is that many of us will likely eat more than this artificially small serving.
Stay away from food containing trans fats, or trans-unsaturated fatty acids. These are fats that rarely appear in nature, but food processing has made them very abundant. They have been linked to increased risk for cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks. Food containing saturated fats (fats that are solid at room temperature like butter) should be eaten in moderation. Our bodies need a bit of it, but not too much!
Make sure you are getting enough protein compared to sugars and fats. As a rule, when you read the food labels of items such as bread or cereal, you should only buy the product if the amount of protein and fiber combined is more than the amount of sugar per serving. Physicians in our practice affectionately refer to this as the “Altman rule,” after one of our senior doctors.
Stay away from overly processed food with ingredients that you’ve never heard of, such as those exotic chemicals straight out of the chemistry lab. Lastly, refrain from buying food high in added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to obesity and diabetes.
3. Spend more time along the periphery (the aisles along the walls) of grocery stores: While every grocery store is different, you might notice a common theme to the layouts. Fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables, as well as the fresh meat and fish departments, tend to be around the periphery of each store. Try to start off your grocery trip along the outside, and pick out your fruits, vegetables, protein, and snackable items (such as hummus and carrots) there first. After exhausting the periphery, slowly make your way to the center aisles with your handy grocery list so you get only what you need. Then head swiftly to the checkout so you don’t get distracted by those last-minute impulse buys!
Mente, A. et al. “A Systematic Review of the Evidence Supporting a Causal Link Between Dietary Factors and Coronary Heart Disease.” Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009.
About the Author
Dominic Wu, MD, Contributing Editor
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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