By Dr. Jean Harvey, Ph.D., R.D., Joyce Hendley, M.S., EatingWell Editors, "Aisle by Aisle: A Supermarket Buying Guide,"The EatingWell Diet (2007)
When you are grocery shopping your goal is to stock up on healthy food and only buy what you truly need. But remember that your supermarket’s goal is to get you to buy as much as possible! Between enticing free samples and displays filled with junk food, you will need to be prepared for temptation. Here are a few tips to keep you on course one aisle at a time.
Let yourself be seduced here; fill your cart with plenty of colorful produce. Aim to try something new each week—an exotic fruit, or a vegetable you’ve never seen before—even if it costs a little more. You might discover a new healthy passion. Likewise, prewashed, ready-to-eat produce like salad mixes, baby carrots and broccoli/cauliflower florets may seem a splurge, but not if they get you to grab them instead of chips when you’re craving a snack. (Admit it: would you pinch pennies so vigorously in the snack-food aisle?)
If convenience is all-important, go for skinless poultry cuts and boneless for quickest cooking. You’ll save some calories and fat by choosing white meat over dark, too—but don’t sweat the difference if you’re planning to broil or grill; most of the fat will drip off anyway. For ground chicken or turkey, make sure you’re getting lean breast meat without skin added (read the label).
In the fish department, you can opt for white-fleshed fish for fewest calories, but don’t forget fatty fish like salmon or tuna, which contain omega-3 fatty acids that dramatically lower your risk of heart attack and stroke if eaten regularly; just choose a moderate portion to keep a lid on calories. Ask which fish is freshest (or check the Date Packed if it’s precut) and reject anything that looks suspect or smells fishy (if it’s wrapped in plastic, fillets should be firm to the touch, with no liquid in the package—a sign of improper thawing). Frozen fish is just fine—and sometimes it’s the “freshest” choice. Just be sure to thaw it properly: overnight in the refrigerator.
Many successful weight-loss veterans make red meat a special-occasion rather than daily purchase, since it’s higher in saturated fat. Look for cuts with “loin” or “round” in the title, and select well-trimmed cuts with the least visible fat. Choose ground beef labeled “90% lean” or higher.
Seek out dairy products that get 30 percent or fewer calories from fat. When choosing milk, opt for “skim,” “fat-free/nonfat” or “1 percent.” (Avoid the misleadingly labeled “reduced-fat” 2 percent milk; about 36 percent of its calories come from fat.) However, “low-fat” (1 percent) or “nonfat” yogurts, cottage cheese and sour cream are all worth trying. If you’re buying soy or rice “milk,” check the label to make sure it’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D—and to make sure you’re aware of any added sugars.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with lower-fat cheeses like part-skim mozzarella or Jarlsberg or reduced-fat Cheddars; they’ve improved greatly in recent years. (You can always blend them with a little full-fat cheese to boost flavor and texture.) Buy full-fat cheeses with strong flavors, like feta, blue, Parmesan or aged Cheddar—and count on just a little bit going a long way. If you buy butter, plan on using it sparingly—slice off a half-stick and store the rest in the freezer. Or if you prefer a buttery spread, read labels to find one that’s free of heart-threatening trans fats. Don’t forget the eggs—at 75 calories apiece, they’re a diet-friendly protein source (and, contrary to popular belief, don’t raise most people’s blood cholesterol noticeably, since their saturated-fat content is fairly low). Fat-free egg substitutes (mostly consisting of egg white) are an even better calorie bargain; they’re only about 30 calories per 1⁄4-cup serving, though you might find them a bit bland compared to whole eggs.
Stock up on plain frozen vegetables (shun the ones with sauce or butter) so that you’ve always got some veggies on hand. Most are frozen right after picking to preserve nutrients and flavor, so you don’t have to feel you’re compromising. You might also find some “healthy” frozen entrees—great “fallback” meal insurance, if you like how they taste (check labels to ensure they’re really “healthy,” and watch the sodium). Pick up some 100 percent fruit juice concentrates and, for semi-indulgent treats, stock up on low-fat ice milks, yogurts and/or sorbets. Look for single-serving packages that allow you to eat a fixed amount.
While these sections can be a minefield of temptations, there are plenty of healthy staples to be found. Choose whole-grain pastas (there are some astonishingly tasty brands now available) and brown rice, as well as “quick” whole grains like whole-wheat couscous, quinoa and quick-cooking barley. Look for canned fruits packed in water or their own juices, and vegetables canned without salt. For convenient protein fixes, try canned beans, water-packed tuna, canned salmon and sardines—and reduced-sodium soups based on broth or beans.
Looking for a good salad dressing? Focus on flavor rather than worrying too much about the fat content, since the whole point of dressing is to get you to eat more salads. “Reduced-fat” and “fat-free” dressings often contain similar amounts of calories and might not be worth the flavor trade-off. Don’t forget to pick up some interesting vinegars, which add calorie-free flavor to just about anything; try balsamic, sherry and apple cider vinegars.
In the cereal aisle, seek out brands labeled “whole-grain” (with whole grains as the first ingredient) and with at least 8 grams of fiber per serving. Check the label to avoid added sugars; you can always add sweetness with your own sliced fresh fruit. In the snack section, best options include whole-grain snack crackers, whole-wheat pretzels, brown rice cakes, whole-grain crispbreads and popcorn (choose “light” microwave variety or—even better—pop it yourself in an air popper or on the stove, in a heart-healthy oil like peanut or canola).
Since sandwich bread is a staple, be choosy: you’ll want one that gives you plenty of whole grains in a tasty package. Look for breads, English muffins, bagels and rolls labeled “100 percent whole-wheat,” with at least 3 grams of fiber apiece (the first ingredient in the list should begin with the word “whole”). Try “lunch”-size rolls for burgers and sandwiches; you’ll get a more reasonable portion. Store bread in the freezer to keep it fresher longer; just thaw on the counter as needed. Whole-wheat versions of pita and flour tortillas can usually be found here, too, along with corn tortillas; keep them to a 7-inch diameter or less.
Among the cookies and cakes, best choices for a splurge are those in bite-size portions, such as brownie bites, mini muffins or flavored meringues. Be wary of “fat-free” bakery treats, which often have as many or even more calories than their “regular” counterparts. Don’t waste your calories on anything that doesn’t taste fabulous.