Ever since I was a little girl, I have always been enamored with the grocery store.
A complex maze of food items, carefully crafted packaging, polished and waxed displays, all curated to perfectly appeal to our human senses. This was an interesting love for a little girl, and it did indeed lead me to one of my most meaningful jobs with an organization called “Cooking Matters.”
My role was to lead grocery store tours to low-income families and individuals in order to help them shop for healthy meals on a budget. My heart opened wide when I saw people truly gaining empowering information that would help them improve their diets, and lives, in a way that worked for them.
However, time after time I saw people being tricked by marketing, thinking they were eating healthy without realizing the food item was highly processed, packed with sugar, sodium, or fat. Better yet, I found that I was just as easily tricked by this marketing.
I saw participants get lost in the cereal aisle, tricked into buying sugary cereal, or thinking that sports drinks were necessary for workout performance. These products are expensive, void of nutrients, and frankly, just a waste of money. Yet, our grocery store aisles are full of products that will leave you sick if you ate them every day.
And they do!
I am now a nurse and see the direct implications that our food system has on our health every day. It breaks my heart. We, in the United States, have a huge and growing problem! All of this time, energy, and money spent on food advertising and unhealthy products could instead be channeled into something meaningful and beneficial for society.
Well, here’s my thought. We could put a stop to this madness and become leaders and redirect that flow of energy. We can put our money in the pockets of companies and products that actually support our well-being. We can empower ourselves with the information to truly live healthier lives.
It can all start right here right now with each and every one of us.
Here are some of the same tools that helped my participants take control of their diet, health, wallet, and life. Learn to be a rebel and create a new food system. Without demand, there wouldn’t be a supply:
1. Set an intention before entering the grocery store.
It may be to buy food that nourishes the mind, body, and spirit, or simply to find nourishing ingredients to celebrate a special occasion. This can help you stay conscious while shopping and avoid adding extra items to the cart.
2. Look past the advertising on the package.
Advertisers are trained to sell you a product—carefully placed words, bright colors, and images that can be misleading. For example, something that is “made with whole grains” can have as little as two percent whole grains in it. Other packaging might say “fat free,” “gluten free,” “vegan.” Ignore these words and go straight to the ingredient list and nutrition label. This will tell you everything you need to know about the food.
3. Decode the ingredients list.
>> Ingredients are listed in order of predominance; ingredients used the most are listed first. For example, if sugar is the first ingredient and whole grain oats is the last ingredient, the product is mostly sugar.
>> Look for whole grain products. Food companies often strip grains of their nutritious fiber and bran. Then they add fillers, vitamins, minerals, and food coloring back in because this is more shelf-stable. When buying “whole grain” foods, make sure the first ingredient says the word “whole” and then the name of the grain. For example, look for whole grain rolled oats: whole grain wheat, whole grain rice.
>> Look for at least three grams of fiber per serving. This helps verify that the product actually contains whole grains. Fiber is what keeps you full, reduces cholesterol, helps your good gut bacteria flourish, and helps keep you going to the bathroom regularly.
>> Can you pronounce the ingredient? Try to avoid words you don’t recognize or items such as natural flavors. Instead, aim for whole foods that don’t need preservatives to keep them shelf-stable. These substitutes will always have more nutrients.
>> Avoid added sugars. If sugar is in the ingredient list, then it is considered “added sugar.” Added sugar is addicting, void of nutrition, can cause weight gain and inflammation, and is linked to chronic diseases. Sugar is added in sneaky places such as peanut butter, salad dressing, pasta sauces, and salsas. If you can’t avoid added sugar, use this trick to get a visualization of how much is added:
Convert the grams of sugar to teaspoons. To do this, divide the total grams of sugar by four. For example, an iced tea with 24 grams of sugar has six tsps of sugar (24/4=6). Ask yourself, “Would I add six tsps of sugar to iced tea?” Fun fact, six tsp is the American Heart Association’s max allowance of sugar daily for most women and nine tsp for most men.
4. Skip the hydrogenated oils.
This is another word for trans fat, which has been directly proven to increase cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease.
5. Take a look at the nutrition label.
Here are some key takeaways:
>> Look at the salt content per serving. If one serving is one cup, and you would eat two cups, multiply the sodium content by two. The recommended daily amount of sodium for most adults is 2,300 mg of sodium.
>> Limit saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 13 g of saturated fat a day for optimal heart health. Saturated fat is found in animal products. Substitute saturated fat for healthier fat found in plants such as avocados, nuts, needs, and olive oil.
6. It is best to shop the perimeter of the store.
Often, the healthiest foods do not have labels or fancy packaging. Think fruits, vegetables, potatoes, onions, bulk grains, and beans. These are whole foods and are well-researched and proven to keep us satisfied and out of the doctor’s office.
7. Look at the unit price to snag the cheapest item.
It’s usually a little white box next to the item price. A cheaper unit price means a better deal.
8. Organic versus not?
Use the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen and clean 15 to help you decide when to buy organic. The clean 15 is a list of produce found to have the least amount of pesticides, and the dirty dozen has been shown to have the most amount of pesticides.
9. To save money, buy frozen fruit and vegetables.
These store longer and are packed at peak ripeness, locking in their nutrients and adding to their deliciousness. Try de-thawing fruit overnight in the fridge and adding it to smoothies, oatmeal, or yogurt. Frozen vegetables can be tossed in an air fryer or used in a stir-fry.
10. Superfoods are cheap.
Beans are packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals but don’t always have the sexy packaging to entice us. They are a cheap and environmentally friendly source of protein that is a fraction of the cost of meat. Try making your own hummus, bean dip, soup, chili, and refried beans. Minimalist baker has hundreds of delicious and nutritious recipes.
11. Have a favorite packaged item in the grocery store?
Try making a healthier version of it. Food manufacturers will generally add more sugar, fat, and salt to food than you would. Get creative and see what you are capable of. For example, do you love a certain brand of flavored strawberry yogurt? Try buying plain yogurt in bulk to save money and add de-thawed strawberries with a dash of cinnamon and vanilla. You will avoid added sugars, eat more fiber, and save money!
Always remember that nature does it best. Packaged, processed products are never superior to nature.
Go straight to the source and you will almost always find more nutrients packaged in a way that is perfectly designed for our bodies. Any product that makes you feel like you need it in order to be healthy is doing its job, selling itself to you.
The quiet apple and broccoli on the shelf don’t have to tell you they are healthy; you know they are. They are waiting for you to use your creative energy to manifest a beautiful, nourishing meal.
Use your intuition and remember what Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”