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August 14, 2013
By Health.mil Staff

Ever leave the grocery store with more than you expected and less of what you needed?

You are not alone. The grocery store is filled with healthy options, but it is also filled with many sweet treats, salty snacks and unhealthy products backed by powerful marketing and colorful advertising. Grocery stores and food manufacturers are in business to make money, so it’s no wonder we often leave the store buying more than we needed or originally intended to buy.

Need some help keeping your cart free of junk? These four tips can help you cut through the marketing and make your next trip to the grocery store faster, cheaper and more healthful. 

Tip 1: Plan your trip

Planning your trip to the store will help ensure that you buy only what you need. Spend some time before your shopping trip deciding what meals you plan on making that week, as well as what you have on hand to make them. Create a list with separate sections for fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats, dairy, whole grains and frozen food. This will help you stick to the most healthy items in the store. It will also help avoid back-tracking and browsing, which can make you more susceptible to food advertising. An important tip from the Mayo Clinic is to never shop on an empty stomach. You may end up buying more unhealthy items such as chips and cookies.

Tip 2: Shop the perimeter of the store

Once you arrive at the grocery store stay along the perimeter. The perimeter of the store is where the fresh, “real” foods are found, while the aisles in the center contain the majority of processed, “junk” foods. By skipping the center aisles, you will avoid food manufacturers’ clever advertising to get you to buy that new must-have brand of crackers, chips or processed snack foods. As a rule of thumb, a “processed” food generally means it comes in packaging such as a box, bag or can. It also means that it has somehow been chemically modified through additives, processing steps or artificial flavorings. So if you can’t recognize the ingredients, it is most likely a processed food. According to The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, there are different levels of processed foods, and some are worse than others. Certain foods are minimally processed, simply to increase shelf-life or to aid in food safety. Foods that are “highly processed” have undergone a process that radically changes their nature, and some health professionals think they should be avoided completely.

Tip 3: Know when and what to substitute

In order to stay under budget, there are substitutions you can make. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be pricey when not in season. If that’s the case, choose vegetables that are frozen without sauces. Canned fruits and vegetables can also be less expensive, but make sure they are packaged in water or natural juices, not syrup. Check for sales on fresh fruits and vegetables, and eat what is in season for the highest nutritional bang for your buck. When fresh herbs are out of season, look for dried or even frozen ones. They will have longer shelf lives and can be a fraction of the cost. Dried and frozen herbs can also be a time saver because you don’t have to chop them.

Tip 4: Always read the ingredients and nutrition information

We can be fooled by a product’s packaging. For example, many products these days are labeled gluten-free, even when the food, like yogurt, doesn’t naturally contain gluten. All this marketing can make it difficult to know what is healthy, but being skeptical about health claims can help. Also, make sure to read the nutrition and ingredient labels to see what you are really buying. Look carefully at serving size and percent of daily value, and remember that the nutritional information on the label applies to only one serving. Try to avoid as many chemicals and preservatives as possible. Can you pronounce all of the ingredients? If not, then you might want to rethink putting it into your body. Try to stick with products that have five or fewer ingredients.

By planning your trip, shopping the perimeter, substituting when necessary and always reading labels, you can save time and money while making healthy choices at the grocery store.