How to Make Sure What You’re Buying at the Grocery Store Is Actually Healthy

Smart shopping for better eating
5 Simple Numbers for Grocery Shopping Success

By: Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

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Here’s the dream: grocery carts full of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and other healthful foods — without a processed food in sight.

Too often, here’s the reality: grocery carts full of sodas and sweets, refined grains and packaged goods — without a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight.

I try to not to judge. I know how hard it can be to shop in a store full of marketing claims and endless options. But when I work with patients, I stress that healthy eating starts with smart shopping.

Keep the following guiding numbers in mind when you shop. They’ll help simplify a few core concepts.

Five: Colors in your shopping cart

No, brightly colored cereal boxes or other packaged goods don’t count. I’m talking about color-rich fruits and vegetables, packed with anthocyanins and other compounds that aid in the fight against disease.

In addition to staples such as leafy greens, think seasonal. Are purple potatoes ripe and ready? They’re a good alternative to their white counterparts. Or pick up the latest summer berries or fall apples. Variety is the key. If you look down and see a bland cart full of boxed goods, rethink your strategy.

100 percent: The magic number for grains

When it comes to bread and other grain products, 100 percent whole grain is the way to go. As part of a healthy, mixed diet, whole-grain foods come with a lower risk of weight gain, heart disease and diabetes than their refined counterparts, like white bread and white pastas.

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Look for a “100 percent whole grain” label on bread. Choose pastas that have a single ingredient, such as 100 percent whole-grain flour. And opt for brown or wild rice over white rice.

“I try to not to judge. I know how hard it can be to shop in a store full of marketing claims and endless options. But when I work with patients, I stress that healthy eating starts with smart shopping.”


Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Wellness Institute

Four: Maximum number of ingredients in middle-aisle foods

You’ve probably heard the old advice to stick to the perimeter of grocery stores — where you’ll find fewer processed foods. That’s good advice, but you can find some good staples in the middle aisles, too, from dried beans to herbs.

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As a rule, stick with middle-aisle foods that have four or fewer ingredients. For example, a cracker with only a few ingredients is less likely to contain refined grains and more likely to be 100 percent whole grain.

Zero: Sodas in your shopping cart

Sugary sodas are far from sweet for your health. They’re one of many factors contributing to childhood obesity. And if you’re a regular soda drinker, you’re risking diabetes, too.

But even the replacement — diet soda — comes with risks, including triggering a desire for high-calorie foods. Likewise, those high-octane energy drinks lining grocery shelves come with the same types of risks as regular and diet sodas, plus insomnia.

You’re better off flavoring your water with fruits and berries, or choosing coffee or tea when you need a pick-me-up.

One: Single servings for “cheat” foods

I’m realistic. I know people are going to eat goodies from time to time. But eating a smaller portion of those goodies can curb your craving without doing the damage of binge eating.

So buy a single cookie from the bakery rather than a whole box. Buy single-serving ice cream instead of a gallon tub. Buy a small bag of chips instead of the “value” size.

It’s best if you avoid these things completely, of course. But on the rare cases you do buy them keep your indulgence small and reasonable.

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