Low Calorie! Low Fat! Reduced Sugar! Gluten Free! Walking the aisles of the grocery store can feel like a circus of advertisements targeted at making you believe you’re choosing healthy foods. It can be easy to get caught up in the hype of the latest product that claims to be ice cream that’s actually good for you, or cookies with protein.
If you’re tired of the confusing food-industry driven concept of health, here is your straight-forward grocery store guide to making it to the checkout counter with everything you need and nothing you don’t.
There are so many different brands and styles of grocery stores that it can be confusing deciding on one that meets all of your needs. Specialty food stores will likely have all of your organic produce and responsibly raised meat choices but other household items like toothpaste will be more expensive. Likewise, going to a big box store may give you bulk and convenience but not the most appetizing or fresh produce choices.
When choosing your grocery store it’s important to consider convenience and function for your needs while also keeping your health in mind. Regardless of where you shop, it’s never a good idea to visit the grocery store on an empty stomach! Hunger while shopping will make it much more likely that you’ll impulse purchase foods that you crave rather than shop smartly for foods that your body needs.
With this in mind, let’s assume that the bulk of us shop at a pretty typical mid-sized grocery store that has a produce section, meat counter, refrigerated foods, frozen foods, and several aisles of packaged goods. Envision your store of choice and let’s begin breaking down the process of making smarter, healthier purchases.
Learn how to navigate each section like a pro:
The produce section of your grocery store is where you should look to buy the bulk of your groceries from. When it comes to your health and wellness, nothing beats fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables. Because whole fruits and vegetables pack a fiber-filled nutritional punch for their very low calorie counts, you can conceivably eat as much of them as you want. Focusing on in-season options keeps you eating the freshest and most delicious produce while also saving you some money at the register. Try these seasonal options:
- Summer: tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, avocados, berries, peaches
- Fall: apples, sweet potatoes, squash, brussel sprouts, pears, swiss chard
- Winter: citrus fruits, celery, beets, carrots, winter squash
- Spring: apricots, asparagus, mushrooms, peas, spinach, lettuce
Try going to the produce section first and planning your meals around these in-season options. A good rule when buying fresh produce is to only buy what you know you can consume before your next trip to the store. Doing so will help ensure that you don’t wind up throwing out spoiled food and wasting your time and money. You can always stock-up on items like onions, broccoli, and carrots that keep well and can be quickly chopped and tossed into stir-fry, added to soups, or steamed.
The packaged food aisles of the grocery store tend to cause the most issues for your health. The foods here tend to be the highly advertised, highly processed foods that often claim to have various “healthy” options but fall short. Avoiding the processed foods and targeting the healthy staples should be your goal when browsing the center of your store.
Some key foods to pick up in these aisles are pantry essentials like beans,pastas, oatmeal, rice, and healthy cereals. Try to limit your packaged goods to single-ingredient or very limited ingredient items to ensure the healthiest choices. Items like quality jarred tomato sauce, nuts, peanut butter, or dried fruits can make a healthy meal or a snack come together quickly.
In general, you’ll want to avoid the cookie and snack aisles as well as the sports drink and soda aisles as it is nearly impossible to find good options there. If you need some easy, go-to packaged snacks, then try to stick with options like nuts or air-popped popcorn.
The refrigerated area of your grocery store is where you should pick up any dairy products you consume as well as eggs or any vegetarian options you like. Stick with whole-milk yogurts and steer clear of brands that promise low or no fat. Your body gets the most probiotic and nutritional benefit from real yogurt.
Whatever your milk or cheese preference, simply avoid processed options with added sugars or stabilizers. Buying cheese in a block avoids the starches used to keep pre-shredded cheese from clumping.
To keep it simple, don’t be afraid of any full fat-dairy. You’re much better off eating a moderate portion of full-fat cheese or yogurt than consuming the gums, stabilizers, and starches used to make low or no-fat options that have the right texture.
Your frozen food section is a great place to stock up on the fruits and vegetables that are out of season or just to simplify weeknight dinners.
Depending on where you live, frozen produce can sometimes be even better than the fresh options as the fruits and vegetables are picked in season and flash-frozen. Berries, mangoes, cherries, peas, spinach, broccoli, and carrots are all examples of fruits and vegetables that freeze well and taste great.
If convenience is extremely important to you or you simply don’t cook, then the frozen aisles are your best bet for finding healthy, ready-made foods. Because frozen foods use the cold temperatures to preserve freshness, you’re much more likely to find delicious and healthful options that do not contain preservatives and additives.
Try finding a brand of frozen entrees that makes real food with real ingredients and, just like in all the other parts of store, avoid the low or no fat promises as that can be a red flag for unwanted food additives.
If you’re lucky enough to have a butcher counter in your grocery store, then the task is simple: choose what looks fresh, fits your budget, and provides the nutrition you’re looking for. Sticking with lean meats like chicken, turkey, and some cuts of beef and pork help ensure you you get enough protein and nutrients.
When choosing from packaged meats, always look for the fewest ingredients possible. Stay away from deli meats and sausages that contain nitrates and preservatives. Remember, just like with fresh produce, only purchase what you can consume or freeze before your next grocery trip to avoid waste.
If you live near the coast, then you’ll want to take advantage of the seafood section. Fish and other seafoods are packed with nutrients including Omega 3s. The downside of buying seafood is that it’s usually fairly expensive. So go for the healthiest foods such as oysters, clams, salmon, and rainbow trout.
Oysters in particular are great for men because they contain high amounts of Zinc, a key mineral that helps with testosterone production.
The Bottom Line
Choosing the right grocery store is the first step in having a successful diet. Then you just need to avoid the gimmicky food choices and shop for natural, healthy food options.