i like to think of myself as a fairly non-judgmental kind of girl. The problem is, when I'm waiting in the grocery store checkout line, that persona goes out the store's sliding doors. As I wait for my turn, I find myself examining the contents of others' carts, and sometimes -- dare I say -- I judge.
If I see a basket of cookies and cola, for example, I have to resist the urge to turn around and ask, "Why?" The same is true when I see a family wheeling a full cart -- without a single vegetable or fruit. Most frustrating, though, is when I see what appears to be a well-intentioned attempt at healthiness that falls short, like a mom who buys a super sugary breakfast bar for her child, believing the claim it contains "real" fruit.
I wish I didn't have these thoughts; I wish I didn't even look. But I'll chalk it up to my job and knowing that the food we choose to put in our bodies has a direct impact on our weight and disease status. Fortunately, the thoughts that go through my head stay there and never come out to a fellow shopper. I thought it was time to put these thoughts on paper.
I can't blame my fellow shoppers: The grocery store is one of the most deceptive places out there, filled with confusing and oftentimes misleading front-of-package claims that trick people into thinking their food choices are healthy when in fact, they're not. The store is also filled with tempting foods and lots of them. You might have 30 varieties of ice cream or 40 types of frozen dinners. It's not the fault of the grocery store, either -- it simply carries the items, and many stores today are pushing healthier options. That's why it's truly up to all of us to make the right choices. Here's your simple guide to the best cart possible:
1. Your cart should have at least five colors.
The giveaway to a cart that's lacking nutrient density is one that lacks color. Research suggests color is what gives fruits and vegetables many of their amazing benefits including prevention of certain cancers, neurological conditions and stroke.
A cart void of real color means that the person pushing it probably isn't getting the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables. To get yours, aim for at least three seasonally fresh produce items and three frozen items that are out of season. Purchasing a few apples, some spinach, a bunch of bananas, purple potatoes, and frozen cauliflower and carrots will get you up to the five requirements. Then, you'll just have to go home and actually eat them, perhaps by matching your apples with natural almond butter for a yummy lunchtime snack, throwing your spinach and carrots into a hearty soup, churning your bananas into a morning smoothie or pairing your purple potatoes and cauliflower with healthy lean proteins, such as fish or chicken breast.
2. Middle aisle foods should contain fewer than four ingredients.
The old adage that the perimeter of the store is best is actually true: It's there you'll find "whole" foods that have minimal processing. That doesn't mean, however, that you'll never need to venture into a middle aisle - you will. The middle aisles contain condiments, crackers, breads, pastas, spices and cereals. Many items in these aisles are healthy, and many are not. How can you figure out the difference between the two? A good rule of thumb is to follow the ingredient trail. For example, choose a cracker that has only three ingredients over one that has 20 because the latter is more likely to contain additives and refined grains.
The rule can also be applied to pastas. Whole-grain "blends" -- which are usually never 100 percent whole grain, hence the word "blend" - will often have at least five ingredients, whereas the 100 percent whole-grain (both wheat and gluten-free versions) tend to contain one to two ingredients. The ingredient rule can also apply nicely to salad dressing, rice, nut butters and even canned tomato sauces!
3. "Goodie" foods should be limited to a single serving.
It's probably unrealistic that you'll never put a cookie in your cart, so if you do, make sure it's the only one of its kind and make sure it's small. That means going for the single serve portion instead of the entire bag of potato chips, cookies or tub of ice cream. This approach allows you to enjoy a food that's tempting without going overboard and without having enough left over to indulge all week. A 2013 study found that people who ate just a bite of a food such as apple pie or chocolate chips experienced the same appetite satisfaction as those who were allowed to indulge in a much larger portion with a lot more calories.
4. All carbohydrates should be 100 percent whole-grain.
This is perhaps the easiest rule to follow -- and with the greatest benefits to your health. Simply look for the 100 percent whole-grain stamp on your breads, opt for pastas with one ingredient (such as 100 percent whole-grain flour or 100 percent brown rice flour if you're going gluten-free) and swap your white rice for brown, black or wild rice. Research suggests making this easy switch could help reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and weight gain.
5. Frozen meals should stay in the frozen aisle.
There is one major similarity among my patients: Those who purchase the most frozen meals cook the least. This is a huge problem if your goal is to start eating right for better health and yes, even a better weight. Most frozen meals (not to be confused with plain frozen fruits, vegetables or whole grains) are empty of any real nutritional value, and are high in refined grains and simple sugars. Further, they often contain preservatives and additives, making them no match for a home-cooked meal.
While some companies have introduced some very healthy frozen meals, as a nation, we are clearly cooking less. In fact, according to recent data, only half of us cook the majority of the time. Cooking six nights a week doesn't mean making grand meals that take hours to prepare. On the contrary, heated frozen rice can be paired with black beans and lightly steamed broccoli for a nutritious meal that takes less than ten minutes to prepare. Broiling a piece of wild salmon will take only 25 minutes and can be paired with a simple salad of greens and olive oil. Easy "convenience" foods that take minutes to throw together into a meal include tofu cubes, chicken strips prepared ahead of time, lightly steamed frozen vegetables, bean-based pastas, frozen wild fish and even eggs (who says they can only be eaten for breakfast?) The point is, if you do it yourself, you take the control away from the food manufacturer and put it back in your own kitchen!
6. Water, coffee and tea should dominate your drink options.
The drink aisles are larger than ever, with hundreds of options to choose from -- but are all these options really necessary? What about the simplest option that comes straight from the tap? Are we so completely bored with the basics of water, coffee and tea that the drink aisle is now a must-stop aisle during our grocery trip? While chugging an electrolyte replacement drink or diet cola every once in a while won't kill you, there are a few drinks that you may want to ban from your cart. For example, several studies have linked energy drinks to insomnia, nervousness, and negative behaviors such as smoking and excess screen time. Additionally, drinks loaded with sugar are directly linked to obesity in children and increase the risk for diabetes. In fact, a 2013 study found that drinking just one 12-ounce sugary drink increased the risk of diabetes by 22 percent.
Following these six golden rules may help to impact your cart -- and your health in ways you never imagined.