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Grocery Store Tour: Learn How to Pick the Healthiest Foods—and Save Money!

by Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.

Let’s face it. We love to eat but hate to shop for groceries. The stores are crowded, the food expensive. And the so-called healthy choices are questionable. So what should you buy?

If steering your cart through the aisles feels like navigating a maze of confusion, take our grocery store tour to defog your head and start making the most healthful choices today.


PRODUCE

walk-this-way-1.jpgThe most nutrient-packed diets are based on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The produce section is ripe with nutritious choices, so start loading your cart there. Evidence suggests that fruit and vegetable consumption reduces the risk of many ailments, including heart disease, stroke, cataracts, high blood pressure and certain cancers.

For the most protection, choose a rainbow of deeply hued fruits and vegetables since each color palate bursts with different disease-fighters.

FOR CONVENIENCE: Try bagged salads and precut, ready-to-eat fruits and veggies.

MONEY-SAVING TIP: Buy fresh produce in season. Ask your produce manager what’s in season and when to expect a delivery.

NUTRITION NOTES: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommends nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables for 2,000-calorie diets. A serving is one medium fruit, 1 cup of salad greens or 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetables.


GRAINS
walk-this-way-2.jpgConsuming at least 3 ounces of whole grains daily (the equivalent of three slices of whole-grain bread) may lower your risk for heart disease, diabetes and certain other chronic diseases and may help you control your weight.

Some whole grains will be familiar; you’ve probably never heard of others. Consider oatmeal, whole-grain corn, popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, whole-grain barley, 100-percent whole wheat, buckwheat, triticale, bulgur, kamut and quinoa. Look for these unusual grains in the natural-foods section of most grocery stores. They make great alternatives to rice and pasta.

MONEY-SAVING TIP: Cereals have a long shelf-life. Purchase extra when on sale.

NUTRITION NOTES: As the name implies, whole grains and foods made from them contain the whole seed – the starchy outer endosperm and the nutritious inner bran and germ. You cannot tell a whole grain by its color. Nor can you tell from a label touting “multigrain,” “high fiber” or “100-percent wheat.” Look at the ingredients label. A whole grain usually starts with the word “whole,” such as “whole wheat,” “whole rye” and “whole oats.” “Enriched wheat” is just another name for white flour. Look for grains that are both whole-grain and high-fiber (at least 2 grams of fiber per 100 calories). For good variety and great nutrition, try an usual whole grain this week.

DIETITIAN PICKS: Triscuit crackers are whole wheat and have no trans fats. For breakfast, try Kashi GoLean, Shredded Wheat, Quaker Oatmeal Squares or oatmeal. Eden pastas make a great whole-grain side dish. Try the kamut, quinoa and rye varieties.


MEAT

walk-this-way-3.jpgLoaded with protein, meat makes a daily appearance in most American households. Choose lean cuts to avoid extra calories and saturated fats.

And be sure to catch some fish. The American Heart Association recommends at least two fish meals per week—particularly those rich in heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids (such as mackerel, salmon, albacore tuna, lake trout, herring and sardines).

A note of caution: Children, women of childbearing age and pregnant or nursing women should not eat king mackerel, shark, swordfish or tilefish/white snapper and should limit tuna steaks and canned albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week because of high mercury levels. (See the FDA/EPA advice here.)

FOR CONVENIENCE: Use chicken tenders. A little pricey, but skinless and moist, they’re perfect for stir frying, sautéing and baking. Many groceries will steam shrimp while you wait. Throw them on top of a large tossed salad for a scrumptious, light supper.

MONEY-SAVING TIP: Buy extra meats when they’re on sale. Wrapped in freezer bags and stored at 0 degrees F or less, meats stay fresh for four to 12 months depending on the cut (pork roasts and chops: four to six months, beef steaks and roasts: six to 12 months, chicken pieces: nine months).

NUTRITION NOTES: Don’t feel that you have to cut red meat completely out of your diet. It’s jammed full of iron and zinc. Just go lean. The leanest cuts of beef have “round” or “loin” in the name, such as “top round” and “tenderloin.” When choosing pork, look for ”loin,” as in “loin chops.”

Look carefully at all ground meats. Many people are surprised that ground turkey is ground with the skin. Make sure you buy ground turkey breast meat only.

Half the calories in chicken are in the skin, so either buy skinless poultry or remove the skin before eating.


DAIRY
walk-this-way-4.jpgBrimming with calcium, dairy foods play roles in preventing osteoporosis and high blood pressure and may even help with weight control. The milk aisle could be a landmine of saturated fats, though. Always seek out fat-free or lowfat dairy, and you’ll be home free.

NUTRITION NOTES: Cottage cheese is not naturally rich in calcium, so choose the calcium-fortified version if you’re not getting about 1,000 milligrams per day (or 1,500 for menopausal women not on hormones) of this mineral from other sources.

Skimp on cream cheese. Nutritionally, it’s more like butter than cheese. Reduced-fat and fat-free cream cheese are better choices, but they still add calories without much nutrition. You would be better off spreading a small bit of peanut or almond butter on your bagel or perhaps melting some reduced-fat cheese on top.

DIETITIAN PICKS: Reduced-fat Cabot cheese tastes delicious. It melts and comes in several cheddar varieties. No one will say that this fat-reduced version tastes like rubber.


PREPACKAGED FOODS

The ultimate in convenience, prepackaged foods can be a nutritional nightmare or a walk-this-way-5.jpgnutritional powerhouse.

NUTRITION NOTES: Soups, pastas and other convenience foods do not make a meal unless they provide both protein and fiber. Though popular, ramen noodles do not fit the criteria of a meal. I tell my patients to make sure their frozen meals have at least 14 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber and no more than 3 grams of saturated fat or 800 milligrams of sodium.

DIETITIAN PICKS: Check out Healthy Choice frozen meals, Amy’s Kitchen Organic Lentil or Black Bean Vegetable soups and all brands of frozen vegetables.


FATS AND OILS
walk-this-way-6.jpg If you remember that monounsaturated fats are good for you and that saturated fats and trans fat are harmful, you’ll always know which oils and spreads to choose. (Monounsaturated fats tend improve the good HDL cholesterol and, when they replace saturated fats in the diet, lower the bad LDL cholesterol.)

NUTRITION NOTES: Generally, softer fats have less saturated and trans fats. Picture butter, stick margarine and tub margarine. The tub spread is usually softer and a better choice.

DIETITIAN PICKS: Opt for olive and canola oils because they have a lot of monounsaturated fatty acids and relatively few saturated fatty acids. Brummel & Brown spread in a tub has a great flavor with only 45 calories, 1 gram of saturated fat and no trans fat per tablespoon.


SPLURGE TIME!

walk-this-way-7.jpg Now that you’ve made good choices all through the store, go pick out your dessert. There’s always room for a little treat if you’ve followed a healthy eating plan.

 

JILL WEISENBERGER, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., is a registered dietitian with National Clinical Research-Norfolk, in Virginia, and a consultant to the food industry with Jill Weisenberger Health Communications LLC.

Last updated and/or approved: April 2010. Original article appeared in fall 2005 former print magazine. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.


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