According to Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., director of nutrition training at Herbalife, the “Nutrition Facts” panel on food packages is one of the best tools you can use for making healthy decisions at the grocery store.
“You can compare things like calories, fat, protein and sugar content across brands, which helps you make smarter choices,” she said.
Of course, making healthy choices based on nutrition content can still be tricky sometimes. That’s why in addition to our “learn to read nutrition labels” guide, we’ve sourced the following seven tips that will help make your next visit to the grocery store easier and healthier than ever.
1. Shop mainly around the perimeter of the store.
“Shop around the perimeter of the grocery store to get your main food groups, like produce, milk and meat,” said Joey Gochnour, an Austin-based personal trainer, registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition and Fitness Professional LLC. “Only go up and down the aisles for cereal and cooking ingredients.” This will help you avoid packaged snacks and overly-processed foods that don’t offer much nutritional value.
Also, make a list beforehand and do your best to stick to it. “This was one of my client's first weight loss victories, as he usually went grocery shopping without a list and ended up buying all sorts of things on a whim,” said Gochnour. “Additionally, if you make different food choices when you are hungry, mad, sad or anxious, then recognize that hunger or feeling first and take care of it before you get to the store and enable yourself with junk food for the rest of the week.”
2. Put lots of foods without labels in your cart.
“Packaged and processed foods tend to contain lots of added salt, sugar, fat and preservatives that make them highly addicting,” said Kelly Brown, a certified health coach and founder of Real Food House, an organization that helps couples and young professionals around the world improve their eating habits.
“Your best bet is to eat as many items without labels as possible—fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds and whole grains. If you are purchasing packaged foods, look for those with less than five ingredients and only choose ones with ingredients you would find in your pantry or refrigerator.” For example, lemon juice would be an acceptable additive, whereas a foods containing high-fructose corn syrup would not be a good option.
3. Watch out for sneaky sources of sugar.
Brown says you should watch out for hidden forms of sugar when considering packaged foods. “Sugar can be detrimental to weight loss and also not good for your health overall,” she said. It can be disguised by many names, a few of which include cane crystals, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup and the list goes on.
4. Try to buy fresh, but don’t dismiss frozen fruits and veggies.
“When it comes to produce, the current season’s fruit and vegetable options are usually fresher, often retain more nutrients, and are often less expensive than items that are out of season,” said Bowerman. “If you have a farmer’s market nearby, the produce might be fresher than what you find in the supermarkets, which means vegetables won’t wilt as quickly and the foods retain their nutritional value. You’re also more likely to find new varieties of fruits and vegetables to try.”
On the other hand, Brown points out that frozen fruits and veggies are typically just a nutritious and are usually available at a lower price point. She explained that frozen fruits and veggies are typically frozen at the peak of freshness, which helps to preserve their nutritional value.
5 Make your daily staples as healthy as possible.
“Most of the time, when there are reduced fat options of foods you eat frequently— like salad dressings, spreads, dairy products and even desserts—switching to the lower fat version can save you a lot of calories,” Bowerman said. “A cup of whole milk has 150 calories and about 7 grams of fat whereas nonfat milk has 90 calories and no fat. A switch from regular ground beef to ground turkey breast can cut about 10 grams of fat and 100 calories per 3-ounce serving.”
She also noted that you’ll eat fewer calories and a lot less sugar if you buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit and sweetener instead of the pre-sweetened kinds.
“Replace refined starches with whole grain—try brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread and crackers, whole wheat cous-cous, quinoa, and oatmeal instead of cream of wheat,” Bowerman added.
6. Try a new fruit or vegetable once a week.
“If you’re not ready to tackle a whole new food item, you can start slow with a different variety or a relative of a familiar food,” Bowerman said. “All fruits and vegetables are unique in terms of the healthy phyotnutrients they provide, so variety is really important to your good health.”
For example, Bowerman suggested switching up the types of salad greens you use. “If your salad is always made with iceberg lettuce, switch to deep green romaine or baby spinach instead,” she said. “Try a new variety of cabbage or apple, or cook some purple cauliflower instead of the usual white.”
7. Find ways to incorporate more fish into your diet.
“Canned tuna and salmon that are wild-caught are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and they’re also convenient and affordable. Add canned tuna to your pasta sauce instead of ground beef, or toss some canned salmon into a salad for a quick, healthy and light main dish.”