A terribly difficult question for health newbies is “How do I shop at the grocery store?” It’s quite a daunting task and very time-consuming to relearn everything you thought you already knew about the grocery store. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know.
Before we head into the grocery store we have to decide what are the healthiest options. Healthy, in this case, refers to the general population and excludes specific dietary requirements for different illnesses, allergies, and intolerances (meaning these practices are useful, but possibly more stringent guidelines may apply in these cases). As always, if you have a health disorder or concern, consult your physician for specific dietary requirements.
Our healthy requirement questions are as follows:
- Is the food whole or processed?
- Is the food organic or non-organic?
- Does the food contain any added sugars?
- Does the food contain any added preservatives?
- Does the food contain any added colors or dyes?
- Does the food contain any altered fats?
Healthy Requirement #1
As a general rule of thumb, it is more health favorable to shop around the perimeter of the grocery store. Once you start walking down the aisles in the center of the store, foods generally become more processed with additives and preservatives (which means they are not “whole” foods). A whole food is one that was not altered and comes from the earth. Examples would be a head of broccoli, a tomato, an apple, raw chicken meat, sunflower seeds, and peanuts. Whole foods are the healthier choice.
Healthy Requirement #2
If a food is whole, the next question you will ask will be “is this food organic?” You may wonder why it matters if a food is organic or not, since there are many sources which say it does not make a difference. Organic foods have been shown to contain more nutrients than their non-organic counterparts. This all depends on farming practices. In organic farming, more nutrients such as magnesium and selenium are replaced back into the soil after a crop is harvested, whereas commercial farming typically does not do this. The amount of nutrients replenished in the soil all depends upon the farmer and what practices they choose to implement. All in all, organic foods are typically more nutrient dense. The major downside to non-organic foods is that they are grown using pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers. There is a wide variety of these types of chemicals and a variance in how they can affect the human body. They may affect the nervous system, disrupt the hormones or could be carcinogenic (cancer-causing). You can read more about possible effects of pesticides on the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website.
Healthy Requirement #3
For the next question we will assess processed foods, or foods that were put together in a factory. Sugar content can be found in the “Nutrition Facts” table on the side or back of a product. Sugar has a very profound and detrimental effect on health when consumed in large amounts. A study recently published in the Journal of American Medical Association says that 71% of American adults get more than the recommended daily allowance of calories from sugar. The USDA claims that on average each American consumes 156 pounds of sugar per year. That is 31 five-pound bags of sugar for each of us. Consistent consumption of sugar raises blood sugar levels and can lead to diabetes, increase fat stores around the body, and leads to heart disease. Excess sugar also helps speed up how fast we age and can contribute to different cancers. My recommendation is to skip the added sugar altogether.
Healthy Requirement #4
Preservatives or additives are added into processed foods to maintain freshness and extend self life. In different countries there are different lists of ingredients that are allowed to be added into foods. Some of the additives are reported as fine for human health, others are questionable. Since the list for the United States is about 3,000 long, we will not go through it. However, I do urge you to look at the ingredient list and KNOW what is in the food you are eating. If you research an ingredient and decide not to consume it, hopefully all the better for you. Make sure to read the FDA Food Additives list for more information.
Healthy Requirement #5
Added colors and dyes are another questionable addition to the food supply, with many claiming different dye numbers contribute to allergies, hyperactivity, migraines and cancer. A study at the University of Southampton concluded that 6 dyes were responsible for childhood hyperactivity and now require warning labels in the European Union. The United States has whittled down their list of allowed colors to 7 from over 80.
Healthy Requirement #6
Lastly, does the food contain any altered fats? Altered fat means its chemical composition was changed. We call this a trans fat. Trans fats have been shown to cause inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the beginning for all diseases. It is safe to say that all health authorities agree that we should all be staying away from trans fat. It is now required to label these fats in the Nutrition Facts table (unless it is under 0.5 grams per serving). You can also identify these in the ingredients by the word “hydrogenated”.
It is easy to make healthy choices once you understand what may be detrimental to your health. Although possibly overwhelming at first, it’s truly worth the effort in the end. Now that you are armed with these 6 healthy nutrition grocery store rules, you can begin to load up your kitchen and pantry with the best options for you and your family. Be healthy!