How To Create a Healthy Grocery List of Nutrient Dense Foods


The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) encourage people to consume a healthy eating pattern. That’s easily accomplished by including a variety of foods and beverages from all of the food groups. They also recommend that foods be nutrient dense, or in other words, are not overly processed. Nutrient dense foods will have less fats, sugars, and sodium added into them during the processing stages, and provide you with a source of good calories, as well as the vitamins and minerals necessary to support a healthy body.

In this article you will learn the best food choices to toss into your shopping cart as you wheel around the grocery store. Do you know that there is a strategy to how grocery stores are designed? Stores are arranged to entice hungry consumers while they shop, and often make it difficult for them to make healthy choices. That’s why it’s better to go shopping with a detailed grocery list and never go shopping on an empty stomach. In most instances, growling stomachs lead us straight to all those unhealthy food choices in the grocery store, like the candy aisle in the checkout lanes at the register!

So, let’s get started and take a virtual tour of a grocery store. The periphery, or outside areas of the store (outer perimeter), contain perishable food items, like the dairy, meat, and produce departments. The inside aisles house the freezer section, as well as the canned foods, paper goods, cleaning supplies, breads and cereals. Since most of these items don’t require refrigeration, I recommend you start shopping in the middle aisles first. The longer your perishable items sit in your grocery cart and are not properly cooled, the more at risk they are for bacterial growth. Consider bringing insulated shopping bags that you can put the perishable foods into while you shop and go straight home with your groceries, especially in hot weather.

Let’s begin in the produce department. Both fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants, and are great sources of fiber. They are also naturally low in calories and low in sodium. Look for vegetables that contain all of the shades from a color wheel (blue, yellow, green, purple, red and orange). Even white vegetables are packed with nutrition! Look for whole fruits versus fruit juices where a lot of the nutrition is lost when the pulp and fiber are extracted and thrown away. The latest ChooseMyPlate recommendation is to make half of your plate packed with fruits and vegetables, so load up your shopping cart when you get to the produce section. ChooseMyPlate replaced the Food Pyramid and is a colorful, graphic reminder to build healthy eating patterns by making healthy choices across the food groups.

Let’s roll the cart into the bread aisle. Look for bread and cereals that advertise they are 100% whole grain and contain at least three or more grams of fiber per serving. Sprouted and seeded breads (Ezekiel Bread, etc.) are healthy choices because they are not overly processed and add heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. Kids cereals are full of added sugars, so watch those pre-sweetened cereals. Choose whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, farro, and whole grain pastas. Legumes (beans, peas) are a great source of protein and are high in fiber and low in fat. Add them into soups, salads or a stir fry.

The DGA recommends a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes and nuts, seeds, and soy products. They also suggest limiting calories from saturated fats and sodium. This food group tends to be high in these areas if you don’t know what to look for. The USDA regulates the foods in the meat department and requires that there is a nutrition label on all of the products they sell. If you are not sure of what to buy, ask the butcher or flip the package over and look at the food label. Look for meat or poultry that contains less than 10 grams of fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fats. Examples include 95% lean cooked ground beef, top round steak or roast, beef tenderloin, pork top loin chop or roast, ham or pork tenderloin. Avoid heavily marbled, or fatty meats. While they are tastier, they are not your healthiest option.

Select skinless, breasted poultry (chicken, turkey) over the darker cuts, like the thighs and legs. If you find that skinless cuts dry out while cooking, then leave the skin on and remove it before serving. Ground turkey and chicken are good substitutes for beef in many dishes. Any type of seafood is an excellent choice, even shellfish. Coldwater fish, like salmon, swordfish and tuna are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help promote heart health. If you are pregnant, you need to be careful of the mercury found in many of the coldwater fish, so you should check with your physician before eating these types of fish.

Deli meats tend to be high in sodium and some can be high in fat. Choose sliced turkey or chicken breast, ham or lean roast beef. Many delis offer “in-house” cooked poultry, which has less sodium added. Avoid salami, bologna, pepperoni, sausage, kielbasa, and pastrami cuts. Watch out for pasta salads that are already prepared in the cold case. They add a lot of mayonnaise and the pasta is white, so remember that means there’s no fiber. Make your own with whole grain pasta and try adding light mayonnaise or plain yogurt to it.

In the dairy case, look for skim or low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified nut beverages like soy and almond if you have allergies or are intolerant to dairy. Even though a yogurt is reduced in fat, it can be high in sugar. Light, low-fat yogurts that are sweetened with artificial sweeteners are better alternatives if you have diabetes or are watching your weight. Look for cheeses that have less than five grams of fat per serving. Eggs are a great source of protein and the choline which is an essential micronutrient needed for liver and brain development. While eggs are no longer restricted in the latest dietary guidelines, they still contain fat. Egg substitutes are made from egg whites and are a good alternative for people watching out for fats in their diets.

In the frozen section of the grocery store, avoid any frozen meats that are breaded. Non-fat frozen yogurts and sorbets are good alternatives to ice cream. There are also low-fat ice cream alternatives like Arctic Zero and Halo which are very tasty and contain between 150-380 calories per pint. Gelato also has less fat compared to premium ice cream. Many no-sugar added and light ice cream products are available for diabetic diets but they still need to be used in moderation. Sugar-free popsicles and fudgsicles are artificially sweetened and have fewer calories and carbohydrates and can be used more frequently in diabetic diets.

The DGA recommends shifting to healthier beverage choices. A typical 12-ounce can of soda or juice can have 50 grams of carbohydrates in them, which is the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar! The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than 50% of your daily caloric intake. For women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons of sugar). For men, it’s 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons). The recommendations focus on all added sugars, without singling out any particular type.

Well, the supermarket tour is over. You now have the tools to ensure you will follow healthy eating patterns that include nutrient dense foods and healthy food choices, as outlined above. Remember that the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that nutrient dense foods should be the primary source of nutrition in your diet rather than processed foods. They also reinforce that eating patterns can be tailored to an individual’s socio-cultural and personal preferences. A registered dietitian can help you get started on your own path to eating healthy by preparing meal plans that cater to your specific needs.

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About Author

Sophia Kamveris is a registered dietitian and is licensed in multiple states to provide nutritional counseling. She holds a Masters degree in Human Nutrition and has more than twenty years of experience in the health care industry. See my profile page for more information!

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