On average, a supermarket is stocked with more than 48,000 items. How do you navigate the labyrinth of labels and temptations in order to make the “best” choices? My advice: go armed with a list and try to stick to it. This helps your wallet and your waistline.
Next, “shop the perimeter.” Unfortunately, in most local supermarkets this typically means dodging desserts even as you enter. But if you can make it past those initial cupcakes, cookies and croissants (never shop hungry!), you’re on the right track. Typically, you enter the produce section first, which may bring up the question, “Do I buy organic?” If you do want to buy organic, refer to the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list – which identifies the biggest pesticide offenders. Here’s what I recommend buying organic:
Yet, you might realize that you are asking yourself questions the entire way through the store. Every food shopper makes decisions based on many criteria, such as taste, cost, appearance, perceived nutrition and health benefits, etc. That’s when it gets complicated…
Fat-free, sugar-free, low sodium, cholesterol-free, high fiber, great source of omega-3’s, gluten-free, dairy-free, peanut-free, no calories… and no idea what’s actually what!
Information overload aside, there are some simple strategies to help. First, forget about health claims that are made on the packages. Instead, scan the ingredients first – less is definitely more! Are there so many ingredients crammed in there that you need a magnifying glass to see them all? Scary. If you have no idea what the things listed are, you should ask yourself why you are buying it in the first place.
Aside from trying to buy items closer to their natural state (such as raspberry sorbet versus raspberry flavored “fruit snacks”), I hone in on basically three areas when reading ingredients: (l) types of fats (2)amount and source of fiber, (3) amount of artificial ingredients –added colors, flavor enhancers like MSG (monosodium glutamate), preservatives (typically sodium) and various sugars and artificial sweeteners.
One more parallel “rule of three”: if the first 3 ingredients include one or more of the following: partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup) or refined white flour, try not to buy it.
Types of fats
Let’s talk about the worst type of fat – trans fats – aka any and all hydrogenated oils. My advice is to get the trans fats out! Completely. They will clog your arteries faster than saturated fat and cholesterol from animal sources. Yes, that means prime rib isn’t even as bad as the artificial trans fats, which are found in all foods that contain fully or partially hydrogenated oils. A product can claim to be “trans fat-free” per serving even if it has trans fats in it, so read the ingredients. The main trans fat culprits remain some margarines, packaged snack foods such as crackers and cookies and many kids “fat-free” snacks. They’re not good for you, and they are even worse for your children! Look for alternative versions containing no hydrogenated oils – there are now many to choose from. At least one big food company (Unilever) recently announced it is removing all hydrogenated oils from its “buttery spreads” (margarines.)
Peanut butter, a national staple, contains trans fats, but is a great example of where you can make a healthy switch. Trade the beloved commercial brands for “all natural” versions. Be careful here too, because there is no labeling law regarding the use of “natural.” Peanut butter will never be a low-fat food, so don’t be fooled by “reduced fat” labels either. Peanut butter naturally contains the good, healthy fats, so stick with ones that are made of simply peanuts and possibly salt but nothing else; no sugars and no other fats like palm oil and hydrogenated oils.
Be careful not to fall prey to “low-fat” and “fat-free” foods that add sugar to make up for lack of flavor. Fat-free salad dressings are notorious for this. They have added sugars and a lot more sodium than regular dressings. I simply go for oil and vinegar types – these dressings use the “right” fats: olive and canola oils. The one grocery section where it makes sense to buy lower fat versions is the dairy department. The fat removed from cheese, milk and yogurt is mostly saturated, which is another unhealthy fat that should be limited in your diet. So do go for the lowest fat dairy foods that still appeal to your tastes. Your cholesterol level will thank you.
It seems fiber is being added to everything these days — from pop tarts to yogurt. This is also deceiving — I call it fake fiber. If the fiber source is added “inulin,” then it does not have the same effects as fiber found naturally in foods, such as from whole grains, which help you feel full longer and maintain even blood sugar levels. The bottom line: Americans need to focus on getting enough real fiber. For adults, that means eating between 25 and 35 grams per day. Breads and cereals are a great way to get good whole grains and fiber in your diet. Yet with literally hundreds to choose from, labels are often overwhelming and confusing.
• Breads – if a product contains the words “whole wheat,” then it is whole grain. If the first ingredient is “wheat flour” or “enriched wheat flour,” then it is not whole grain. It must say “whole wheat” or “whole grain,” and even “multigrain” can have refined grains. There are products touting “white whole wheat” as well. This actually is a whole grain (whole wheat), so you can feel better about those “white” products that kids in particular may insist on. In general, look for the ones with the most fiber per serving and fewest ingredients.
Other high fiber foods include beans/legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables.
Now for sugar – that wonderful sweet taste that we humans are pre-programmed to love.
Unfortunately, too many manufactured foods with too many processed forms of sugar are available. The average American consumes close to 500 calories daily from added sugars, meaning those not naturally occurring in foods such as fruit and milk. The best way to avoid these “empty calories” is to limit consumption of all sodas and other sweetened beverages and check for sugar amounts found in foods like crackers, snacks, breads and cereals, which are commonly used as vehicles for hidden sugar transportation. In general, choose products that contain fiber from whole grains to offset some of the simple carbs and look for foods that have no more than 35 grams of carbohydrate per serving, which is not always easy! Another quick guide is to think of total grams of carbs to fiber in a 5:1 ratio or lower (the more fiber the better.) Again, check ingredients lists.
As far as health goes, we still have super high intakes of sodium to contend with, which can cause high blood pressure. That is what I say to remove a lot of the “fake stuff” such as MSG and other preservatives and flavor enhancers, because they are the biggest source of sodium in the American diet. For example, if you can’t go without chips, then at least eat the plain versions, as they are much lower in sodium and typically have no artificial ingredients. My best advice for enjoying some indulgences – keep it real and eat less.
Sleuthing your way through the supermarket may take time and cost a bit more, but it gets easier and the payoff is your good health. That’s priceless.