Grab a cart and use this aisle-by-aisle guide to pick up the healthiest foods possible.
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Did you know you're more likely to buy healthy food if you push a shopping cart instead of carrying a basket? According to a recent study, it's true. We spoke to Manuel Villacorta, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and founder of Eating Free and Marissa Lippert, RD and author of The Cheater's Diet for more interesting tips to navigating the supermarket and staying healthy.
Before you go shopping this weekend, arm yourself with this practical advice before you end up with a fridge full of bacon and American cheese singles.
Look for locally grown and seasonal fruits and vegetables whenever possible. These items will have more flavor and more nutrients. Beyond that, you want to get a mix that’s as colorful as possible. “You want to eat the full rainbow of colors in fruits and vegetables,” says Villacorta. “And you have an entire week to do so.” Pick up a mix of purples, greens, yellows, reds and even whites. “Potatoes, cauliflower, bananas, onions, garlic—they all count.”
“You don’t necessarily have to have fat-free with milk,” says Villacorta. “If you’re having whole or two-percent milk then you just need to think about where else you’re getting fat.” Meaning you can’t have whole milk and cheeseburgers. But whole milk and chicken breasts are good. Same goes for cheese. Greek yogurt is particularly good (get one with less than 15 grams of sugar—6 is ideal). “And don’t avoid eggs—you should aim to eat four or five per week.”
“Go organic when you can afford it,” says Lippert. “Grass-fed beef is going to have a higher omega 3 content and a lower amount of cholesterol.” Obviously, you should pick lean cuts over the fattier ones; pick ground beef with no more than four percent fat. “If you can’t find that, you can take a sirloin steak, which is lean, and ask the butcher to grind if for you,” says Villacort. “Become a friend of the butcher!”
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are great. But eating that time and time again is going to get boring. For variety, you can get a whole chicken. “It’s the best bang for your buck but you do have to do the work,” says Villacort. You can cook the whole thing with the skin on for a bit of added flavor—just take it off before you eat. That’ll save you up to 200 calories.
You want to eat fish up to three times a week—and you want to mix up the variety to save yourself from boredom and mercury poisoning. Get a variation of white fish and salmon, which contain the good fats. “Ask the guy at the fish counter what’s fresh and local and what’s been frozen,” suggests Lippert. The former will taste better.
If you can’t get to the store for fresh veggies, frozen veggies are a good alternative. Frozen is also a good way to get certain veggies when they’re out of season. Also worth noting: If you get a fresh vegetable, like broccoli, and it sits in your fridge for a week before you eat it, it will loose nutrients and frozen actually will be better at that point.
Frozen meals and pizza should only be eaten in emergencies. “Watch the sodium—you’re shooting for 500 mg or less and even that is high,” warns Lippert. Check for a fat content that’s 15 grams or less and always see how many servings there are in a box—and eat just one recommended serving.
“Look for cereal that doesn’t have a lot of junk in it,” Villacorta says. Obviously, that includes marshmallows, yogurt-covered pieces and chocolate chips but Villacorta says that also includes dried fruit: “Any time a cereal has dried fruit, it’s going to have a lot of processed sugar. You’re better off adding your own berries and bananas later.” Check the labels before you buy. Servings should have less than six grams of sugar and at least three to five grams of fiber.
Lots of people try to avoid these aisles completely but there are lots of great whole grains down there. Look for multigrain rice and pastas (think: quinoa and barley). “Whole wheat pastas should have at least three grams of fiber,” suggests Lippert. Always buy the plain variety of brown rice and couscous—instead of, say, Parmesan flavor—and flavor it yourself at home to cut out unnecessary sodium.
Canned veggies and fruits are not as healthy as fresh or frozen because they have less nutrients and more salt or sugar. But if it comes down to canned or nothing, then it’s better than nothing. The best thing you can reach for? “I like canned beans,” says Villacorta. Use them to dress up salads, stews and soups or mix them into brown rice. “Cooking dried beans can take a long time but canned beans are just as healthy and nutritious. Just rinse them off with water first to reduce the amount of sodium.”
You should try to avoid these aisles as much as possible. But if you do get lured in, look at the ingredients list and stay clear of any package with more than five ingredients, any artificial ingredients or ingredients you can't pronounce. Also, don’t be fooled by potato chips that are “baked”—they’re almost just as bad for you as regular chips. “I can’t suggest limiting yourself to one or two servings from this aisle because I don’t even recommend it at all,” warns Villacorta.