There is a lot of talk about healthy eating, but the first step in being able to eat healthy is knowing how to shop for healthy foods. There are so many products and brands that it can be confusing to say the least. Knowing some basic tactics to navigate those sometimes intimidating aisles can be extremely essential to helping you meet your health and fitness goals.
Here are a few tips from my experience as a registered dietitian nutritionist:
1. Shop the perimeter first.
You've probably heard this one before, but it really is true. Many of the healthier food options are found around the perimeter of the store. Usually the produce, fresh meats, eggs and dairy products are on the perimeter. Start with filling your cart with some of these healthy options and then head to the aisles. The inside aisles are usually where the more processed and less nutritional options are found. This isn't always the case — there definitely are some healthy options in the aisles. Make sure to check out the labels so that you can find the best option, which brings us to our next tip:
2. Read the nutrition facts labels.
This is so important in finding healthy options. Differing brands of the same product can vary greatly in their nutritional content. Some things to look for when you're reading those labels are fiber, sugar, fat and protein. Low-fat options are great, such as low-fat milk and yogurt. However, you want to be careful because sometimes when they take out the fat in a product they replace it with a lot of sugar (see "A systematic comparison of sugar content in low-fat vs. regular versions of food," published on ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/). So make sure you're comparing different brands to find one that has a good balance overall.
Also, fiber is your friend. When choosing breads, pastas, cereals, etc., pick the brands that have more fiber. Fiber helps keep you regular and helps keep you full longer so you're not starving an hour after your meal. Usually whole wheat products will have higher fiber content (see "Whole Grains, Refined Grains and Dietary Fiber" on heart.org).
Also check out the sugar and protein. When looking for products such as protein bars, a good rule is that you want the amount of protein (in grams) to be more than the amount of sugar.
Don't be afraid to take a little extra time and check out some labels.
3. Look for healthier options of your favorite foods.
There are usually many different options when it comes to our favorite foods, even desserts. Trying to find healthier options of a favorite food is a great way to improve overall nutrition. For example, choose low-fat Greek yogurt instead of a regular whole-fat yogurt, or find a pasta that is whole wheat or even has vegetable puree. There are so many healthy options out there, and honestly, many of them really do taste great. You may not always like them, but it doesn't hurt to give them a try. You never know, you may just love them.
Also, there are higher-protein desserts. Many high-protein, low-sugar ice creams have become popular, as well as high-protein, low-calorie cookies. Many of them taste great!
So challenge yourself to take a chance on a new and healthier option of one of your favorite foods next time you're at the store. (See "How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label" on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's website at fda.gov to help decode the Nutrition Facts label.)
Hopefully these tips give you a little guidance and make grocery shopping a little less stressful. Many dietitians will do "grocery store tours" for their clients to really get into depth on how to shop for healthy foods, so consider taking part in something like that if you feel it would be helpful. Good luck, shoppers.