Supermarket Smarts: A Quick Guide For Choosing The Healthiest Foods In Every Aisle

Monday, October 23, 2006 - 2:14pm

By Heidi Reichenberger McIndoo, MS, RD

Foods that travel from the grocery store’s shelves into your cart and then into your refrigerator/pantry make up the foundation of your diet. And when healthy ingredients and snacks are readily available, you’ll eat them! But navigating through the more than 35,000 items in a typical supermarket requires some savvy—especially if you want to lose weight and eat nutritiously.

Here’s a mini-primer to help you out. For each department in the store you’ll find general guidelines of what to look for as well as what to look out for. Think of it as the first step on your road to healthier eating and even weight-loss success, if that’s your goal.

Produce Section

1.   Select the most colorful produce

Remember: the more color, the more variety of nutrients. Blue, green, orange and red fruits and veggies are rich in phytochemicals that can fight heart disease and cancer.

For further information on foods rich in phytochemical see the following articles from 10 Best 'Superfoods' and Feast on Phytochemicals.

2.   Try pre-washed and pre-cut fruits and vegetables

While these may cost a little more, the time you’ll save on preparing them may encourage you to eat more.

3.   Watch out for dips and dressings

Avoid the high-fat, high-calorie dips/dressings sold next to the lettuce and those packaged with pre-cut fruits or veggies.

Try choosing at least one fruit or vegetable from each color of the rainbow. This strategy guarantees you’re getting a wide range of nutrients from each trip to the market. This section of the grocery store is arguably the most natural and healthy, so aim to select the most unprocessed options. Skip the fruit drinks (which are loaded with sugars) and the fried banana chips.

Dairy Section

1.   Calcium needs per serving

Buy products that provide at least 30% of your daily calcium needs per serving. If you’re a woman between the ages of nineteen and fifty, this equates to approximately 300mg.

2.   Choose lowfat or nonfat products, and watch the sugar content

Flavored milks and yogurts can be tasty calcium sources, but beware of their higher calorie, fat and sugar numbers.

Low-fat cheeses have come a long way in terms of flavor and melting ability, so try a few to find what you like the best. When it comes to pre-made milkshakes and smoothies take heed; they tend to be loaded with sugar and some have upwards of 500-600 calories.

Cereal, bread and grains aisles

1.   Which are the healthiest breads?

Look for breads that contain at least 2 grams of fiber per slice. These breads will usually list whole wheat flour as the first ingredient.

2.   Which cereals are best?

Pick cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. In addition to filling you up, high-fiber cereals are also good sources of antioxidants like vitamins A and vitamin E, and selenium as well as copper, zinc and vitamin B6.

If you’re not a fan of wheat bread, its time to give it another try. The newest arrival to bakery shelves is white whole wheat . It contains the fiber of whole wheat but the flavor of white.

For your sugary cereal loving kids, or maybe even yourself, try a compromise. Fill your bowl halfway with a fiber-rich cereal and then top it off with some of the sweet stuff. Beware of pseudo-healthy foods like granola. While it has a great reputation, it’s often loaded with fat and sugar.

Meat, fish, and poultry section

1.   Incorporate seafood into your diet

Most fish and shellfish are the leanest sources of iron and protein you can find, and should be eaten two to three times a week.

2.   Choose lean ground beef

A 3-ounce serving of "95% lean" ground beef contains 132 calories, 5 grams fat and 2 grams saturated fat, while 3 ounces of beef that’s 80% lean offers 204 calories, 12 grams fat and 6 grams saturated fat.

Sausages and ribs are some of the fattiest choices in this department. What’s more, the fat they contain is the artery-clogging, saturated kind. These foods really don’t belong on your weekly grocery list; they’re best saved for once in a while.

Canned foods aisle

1.   Be on sodium-alert

Canned foods, especially soups, can be very high in sodium. Keeping your daily sodium intake at or under the recommended 1,500-2,400 milligrams is pretty tough when some soups contain 1,000 milligrams or more.

2.   Avoid fruits packed in syrup

You’ll save on calories and sugar grams by selecting fruit that is canned in juice. One cup of canned peaches in heavy syrup has 84 more calories and 23 more sugar grams (almost 6 teaspoons!) than the same amount of juice-packed peaches.

Baked beans can be a quick and easy side dish for a healthy meal. They’re a great source of fiber and protein and contain very little fat. Watch out for ramen noodle soups; because the noodles are fried before packaging, they’re extremely high in sodium and fat.

Frozen foods section

1.   Is there a calorie guideline?

Choose entrees with around 400-500 calories. If they contain fewer calories, you’ll probably feel hungry soon after eating. Whereas if they contain a lot more, it’s probably calorie overkill (and could contribute to weight gain). To round out your meal, add a salad and glass of low fat milk.

2.   Avoid frozen fruits and vegetables with added sugar, sauces and butter

Frozen produce is a smart way to get your phytonutrients all year round. Why add calories and fat to the perfect alternative to in-season fruits and vegetables?

Convenience is the reason these foods exist. However, convenience doesn’t always translate into nutritious. Enjoy waffles? Try some the whole-grain ones for a quick and healthy meal. And, for a sweet treat (without going overboard) check out the mini-ice cream sandwiches or mini-popsicles.

There are numerous pitfalls in this icy aisle; limit the premium ice creams to once in a while, and steer clear of the extra large hungry-sized meals. Some contain an entire day’s worth of calories in just one meal!

Deli counter

1.   Opt for the freshest meats as possible

In other words, choose roast turkey, beef and ham over heavily-processed, high-fat, high-calorie meats like salami and bologna.

2.   Avoid the tuna, egg and potato salad

As well as all the other dripping-with-mayonnaise salads and side dishes - you’re better off making these salads yourself.

3.   Choose the vegetable and fruit-salad sides

They’re usually made with more healthful mixers.

Don’t overlook the versatility of a good ole rotisserie chicken. It’s delicious as-is, but it’s also great shredded in tacos and casseroles, or used as a salad topper. After you remove the skin, 3 ounces of white meat will provide you with a mere 102 calories, 2.4 grams fat and 33 grams of protein.

Now, it’s time to tackle those aisles and start overhauling your grocery cart!