How to Shop Healthy at the Grocery Store

Shop with a grocery list

Now that you’ve gotten to know your grocery store better, it’s time to put your new knowledge to the test. Before you shop, read through these eight tips to make your experience a little healthier.

Make a list and stick to it.

It may sound trite, but shopping with a grocery list is a good idea. In fact, studies show that consumers who stick to a list buy healthier food and save money. Fewer surprise items show up in their grocery carts. Plus, using a list can be an effective weight-loss strategy.

Snack before you go.

You probably know this instinctively: When you got to the store hungry, you buy things you probably shouldn’t. Hungry shoppers tend to load up on higher calorie items, according to one study, and buy higher priced food, according to another. When you shop, may also impact your choices. The same study suggested that shoppers buying groceries between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. did better than those buying between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. – probably due to hunger. Ironically, going to the mall hungry can have an adverse effect on your pocket book, too. In one study, hungry mall shoppers spent 63 percent more money than satiated shoppers. 

Practice mindfulness.

Grocery stores are designed to help you make impulsive purchases. From scents and colors to sounds and product placement, the deck is stacked against you. By taking your time, however, and practicing mindfulness, you can take charge of your shopping experience. Follow these recommendations from Donald Altman, author of The Mindfulness Toolbox.

Bring your reading glasses.

Even if you’re picking up just a few items, reading food labels can help you make better decisions. Plus, you may be surprised by how many servings are in packaged food product versus what you usually consume. Think of it as continuing education.

Be skeptical of healthy food claims.

If a food has to convince you it’s healthy, it may not be. Consider just a few labels:

  • “Reduced sodium” means a product has 25 percent less salt than the conventional version of the same food. If that conventional version is loaded with sodium, a reduced version may still not be healthy for you. This is true for other labels like “low-calorie” and “low-fat.” In a recent review of labels, a study found that such claims and their relationship to what’s in the actual product varied substantially. Read the label instead and see how many milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving the item contains. The recommended daily intake  for sodium is less than 2,400 mg per day.
  • “Whole grain” usually means a product is better for you than products with more highly processed grains. But just because something is labeled whole grain doesn’t mean the food is healthy. Consider cereal labels. A whole grain cereal may still be loaded with sugar, calories and carbs that you may not want.
  • “No sugar added” products actually may have plenty of sugar. Just because it doesn’t have added sugar doesn’t mean it’s healthy—and it may have other sweeteners which are just as unhealthy. According to the Food and Drug Administration, foods bearing the “no sugar added” label can still be made with artificial sugars and sugar alcohols. And they can contain “natural sugars” and other carbohydrates like maltodextrin. As with sodium it’s important to read the label to see how many carbohydrates and sugars a product has — even if it claims no added sugar.

Buy fresh when possible.

Fresh fruit and vegetables might cost a little more than their frozen or canned counterparts—but they have several big benefits. First, fresh just tastes better. Depending on the produce, they may be nutritionally superior to their canned and frozen cousins. But most importantly, fresh fruit and vegetables don’t have added salt and sugar. If you're going to buy canned or frozen, make sure you read the label and choose versions with no-added salt or sugar.

Stay in season.

Here’s a shopping tip: In-season vegetables are often cheaper than out-of-season veggies due to their availability. Plus, they tend to taste better and may come from sources closer to your grocery store. Don’t know what’s in season? Talk to the produce person stocking the shelf. In addition to knowing what’s in season, produce workers may be able to steer you to better bargains and may help you find the best pick. 

Stock up on whole grains.

This is easier than it used to be. From whole grain breads to exotic, ancient grains like amaranth, teff, quinoa and spelt, chances are your grocery store is loaded with healthy alternatives to refined grains like white rice, white bread and white pasta. And there are dozens of recent cookbooks (Everyday Whole Grains by Ann Taylor Pittman or The Whole Grain Cookbook by AD Livingston) and web sites dedicated to using these grains. 

Whole grains offer a host of health benefits that refined grains do not, including bran and fiber that slow the conversion of starch to sugar, thus keeping blood glucose levels steady.

This content was last reviewed November 2020.


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