Business of Well-being

Becoming Supermarket Savvy

When you're not working, one of your many responsibilities may be food shopping. How can you become more "supermarket savvy" so it's a simple, healthy and even enjoyable task? One of the easiest ways to avoid temptation is to avoid bringing high-fat, high-sugar foods into your home in the first place. This effort begins in the supermarket, so learning to shop more effectively can be one of the most useful skills when trying to create new, healthy habits.

The first step is to avoid the random impulse purchasing of binge inducing trigger foods. The easiest way to do this is by shopping with a prepared list. Sitting down to write a list out may seem like a big task, but you can make it easier. An easy trick is to keep a running list easily accessible in your kitchen - maybe hanging it on the refrigerator or leaving it on the counter. When you are running low on something, jot it down. When you think of a healthy meal you'd like to try, write down the ingredients.

When you see a picture, advertisement or recipe for a delicious healthy meal, grab your list and write it down. Another great shortcut in list making (and healthy meal planning) is to subscribe to a meal planning service, which not only gives you a week of healthy recipes, but comes with a handy grocery list listing the ingredients you'll need. Once you have your list, make sure you only take the list to the supermarket.

Leave your hunger and if you have children, at home if you can. If you food shop when you're hungry, you're much more tempted to buy things you would normally be able to bypass. By having a light snack or mini meal before you enter the supermarket, you're judgment will stay intact and you will be able to make more sound choices.

Have you noticed how much more junk food you buy when you bring your kids to the supermarket with you? The battles can be endless in the supermarket, with foods containing the least nutrition and the most fat, sugar and calories strategically placed right at your children's eye level. If you must bring your children, also bring a strong resolve to stick to your list. If you have a choice, leave the kids at home and take a few moments for yourself.

You can use the opportunity to make better choices that the whole family will benefit from. So, you're armed with your list, you've had a snack and now you are alone in the supermarket. Where do you begin?

Let's talk about labels.

  1. The first think to notice when looking at a nutrition label is to note the number of servings in the package. The calories, fat, cholesterol, fiber and sodium are all listed for only one serving. So, for example, if you buy a bag of popcorn and the bag contains ten servings and you finish the bag, the calories, fat, cholesterol and other nutritional information must all be multiplied by ten.
  2. Ingredients are listed in order from the highest concentration to the lowest. This means that if sugar or fat are listed within the first few ingredients, there's a high concentration of sugar or fat on the item. The reverse is also true. If the healthy-sounding ingredients - the fruit, the whole grains - are at the end of the ingredient list, there is likely to be only a tiny bit of them in the product.
  3. Sugar is often disguised under different names. High fructose corn syrup, any ingredient ending in "-ose", honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, and brown sugar are all forms of sugar that act just like regular, white, refined sugar within your body.
  4. If the front label claims that the food is "healthy", "low-fat", "wholesome", "made with whole grain", "made with fruit", check the back label to see what the real story is.  Food producers do not generally have your good health in mind when they put foods on the shelf. They want the foods to sell, and they know that these kinds of claims catch your attention. But the ingredients often tell a different story. Foods may be low in sugar, but high in fat and artificial coloring. They may contain a small amount of whole grain, along with a hefty dose of white flour and high fructose corn syrup. Make sure you look at the whole label and don't rely on the health claims to guide your choices.
  5. How many of the ingredients on the list look familiar? How many can you pronounce? How many would you feel comfortable adding to something you were cooking or baking at home? When you were a child and your grandmother baked her delicious, mouth-watering apple pie, the only flavor enhancer she added was the love that went into baking it for you. Although there are thousands of items available in the typical supermarket today, an alarming amount are pre-packaged, processed and provide little nutrient value.

When a food is processed, it's altered from its natural state. Valuable nutrients, vitamins and minerals are taken out while chemicals and additives are injected back in. Food dyes, flavor enhancers, stabilizers and preservatives may make food look more colorful or extend shelf life but think about it. If a product can last indefinitely in a store or a vending machine, what happens to it when it's in your body?

An easy rule to make healthy purchasing decisions would be this: if you can't pronounce it, if you wouldn't add it to anything you were cooking or baking at home, if you wouldn't find the ingredient listed anywhere in your favorite cookbook, it's probably best not to eat it. So what are the healthiest choices to make within each aisle?

Most of the healthiest foods are located in the outermost aisles of the supermarket, especially in the fruit and vegetable departments. Let's start in the produce department. Here's where you really want to fill up your cart with beautiful, interesting and colorful fruits and vegetables. Different colors of fruits and vegetables offer different nutrients, so just by making colorful selections you're automatically increasing your chances of getting a wide variety of healthy nutrients.

There are also many varieties of prewashed, precut lettuce and other vegetables available, making it easy to prepare interesting salads and side dishes. Here's where you splurge, because if a variety of pretty, precut vegetables are available at home, your may reconsider eating pre-packaged, processed junk food. A word on organic fruits and vegetables. One of the greatest differences in organic fruits and vegetables lies in how the food is grown, handled and processed.

Because organic foods aren't treated with preservatives and waxes you may find that organic fruits and vegetables spoil more quickly than nonorganic varieties. Organic fruits and vegetables also aren't sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, which leave a residue on the food; something many people want to reduce their exposure to. Organic farming methods are also designed to conserve water and soil while reducing pollution; making organic foods more environmentally friendly.

There is a price for these farming practices however. While these methods encourage the growth of fruits and vegetables free from herbicides and pesticides, it often means that the farming method is more labor intensive which increases the price of the food. If you're interested in shopping organic and there's a limited supply at your local supermarket, here's where you can find local farmers markets, organic foods and community supported agriculture near you.

Check out to find out what's being grown and harvested right in your surrounding area. Now, if you aren't buying organic varieties, here are a few tips. Rinse and gently scrub the skin to reduce the amount of residue or peel the skin and trim the outer layers. This will cut back on anything that accumulated on the surface of the food. Be aware however that many fruits and vegetables have important nutrients found within the skin so peel with discretion.

Also, if you're concerned about the price, these choices have been labeled the "dirty dozen" which means they are most affected by herbicides, pesticides and preservatives. If choosing only a few organic options, these are the choices to splurge on: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes. These fruits and vegetables have been dubbed the "cleanest" choices so if your budget allows for only a few organic choices, opt for the list above and go nonorganic for these choices: onions, avocado, frozen sweet corn, pineapples, mango, asparagus, frozen sweet peas, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and papaya.

Speaking of organic, when walking through the meat and poultry aisles, here's the difference between organic and nonorganic meats. Organic meat comes from an animal that hasn't been fed any antibiotics, growth hormones or steroids. These animals eat grass or grain (for chicken) so they grow at a natural rate. Organic meat and poultry also has less fat than conventionally farmed livestock because the animals are given more freedom to move.

So moving beyond organic or nonorganic, how can you make healthier choices in the meat and poultry aisle? In the meat section opt for leaner cuts of beef and poultry. Choose cuts with less visible fat to decrease your intake of saturated fat. If you are buying ground meat, look closely at the percent of fat (most labels now show the fat content) and buy the leanest version. With fish, choose both fatty (salmon and tuna) and lean varieties.

Fatty fish are great sources of omega 3's and white colored varieties (flounder, sole, and halibut) are low in fat and calories. For vegetarians or those trying to decrease their intake of animal protein, bypass this aisle entirely for protein sources coming from tofu, nuts, seeds, etc. In the dairy section look for words such as "low fat", "non fat", "fat free", "1 percent", "2 percent", and "skim". Consider switching to skim milk, or at least working your way down to 2%, then 1% and then skim.

Just some facts-eight ounces of whole milk has 156 calories with more than half of those calories coming from fat. Skim milk has around 92 calories with only 5 of those calories coming from fat. Eggs, butter, margarine and soy products are often in these aisles so read labels and choose carefully. Watch the fat in your dairy products and look out for added sugar in yogurts, creamers and soymilk.

You can still pick up healthy items in some of the center aisles if you choose carefully. In the grain aisle, try to avoid refined carbohydrates and opt for whole grain and high fiber whenever possible. Choose 100% whole-wheat or sprouted grain bread, high-fiber cereals, whole-grain pasta, brown rice and other fiber rich grains. The closer the grain is to its natural source, the more fiber and nutrients it contains.Beans can also be found in either the grain or canned food aisles.

Dry beans require soaking. If this doesn't appeal to you, canned beans are just as nutritious so if you'll eat more beans this way, buy the canned version instead.In the frozen foods section, you might want to grab a few bags of frozen vegetables or mixed blends (without the added sauces or butter flavoring). Frozen vegetables retain the vitamins and nutrients while being convenient and easy to prepare.

Of course, you may want to add a few sweets and treats to your shopping cart and that's ok. Opt for single serving portions for easier portion control whenever possible. Remember, as difficult as it may be to bypass something in the supermarket, it's easier to walk past an item while it's on the shelf than once it's in your home.

The most important thing to remember is that slow and steady change in the right direction brings lasting results. Just starting with one change from these ideas can create some new, healthy habits your entire family can benefit from as you learn how to strategically shop within your favorite supermarket.

About The Author

Debi Silber, MS, RD, WHC The Mojo Coach is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's in Nutrition. She's a Personal Trainer, Whole Health Coach, speaker and author of The Lifestyle Fitness Program: A Six Part Plan So Every Mom Can Look, Feel and Live Her Best (recommended by Parenting Magazine and Jack Canfield, Co-Author the Best Selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series and The Success Principles). Sign up for a free report, 52 weeks of healthy living tips and a subscription to Debi's newsletter Mojo Moments at

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