“Only shop the perimeter of the grocery store.”
I’ve seen this piece of advice time and again on lists of healthy eating advice columns and I think that it is one of the biggest myths of living a healthy lifestyle.
While well-intended, if you are following this “advice”, you are doing yourself a huge disservice.
There are plenty of healthy options in the aisles, and there are plenty of items that should be approached with caution along the edges.
Yes, fresh fruits and vegetables should be encouraged! Aiming for at least 5 servings per day is a great goal for those looking to improve their health – I myself get over twice that in a day!
While eating 100% organic would make this dietitian go broke, I do try and make an effort to make certain items organic: the Dirty Dozen, which tend to have the highest amounts of pesticides used on them. Alternatively, going organic on other items is probably a waste of your money.
The produce section is where you will also usually find some bottled salad dressings and juices. Watch out for hydrogenated oils in the salad dressings and added sugar in the juices – it should be 100% fruit and vegetable juice. Whole fruits > fruit juice, so try not to rely on fruit and vegetable juices for your servings of produce.
I’m not sure about your grocery store, but the ones I have been in also tend to sell the items that tend to make salads less than healthy – like “bacon” bits and croutons. I have also found more and more fried and packaged vegetable snacks being sold in the produce section.
Bakery and Bread
This is one of the biggest reasons that I hate the perimeter myth. The bakery is usually located along the edges of the store, and often right next to the produce section.
Just because cakes, cookies, cinnamon rolls, and doughnuts are located along the wall does not mean that it falls under the health umbrella. Don’t kid yourself.
Also, a gluten-free brownie is still a brownie.
For those who are not gluten-ally challenged, look for 100% whole grain and sprouted grain breads. “Multigrain” or “wheat” may seem like ‘healthy’ choices at first glance, but check the nutrition facts label and look for loaves that offer around 3-5 grams of fiber per slice.
Meat, Poultry, and Seafood
Next up, let’s talk animal protein.
Go lean with protein, or if you go higher-fat, try and get it grass-fed or wild-caught.
Choose 93% over 70% ground beef. Pork tenderloin over pork shoulder. Chicken breast over chicken thighs. Wild-caught over farm-raised salmon.
Getting friendly with the guy behind the meat counter and they can even help you pre-cut your meat into appropriate portion sizes if you really can’t be bothered. Some places will even perfectly cook the meat for you!
In general, try and keep the processed meats to a minimum. Deli meats tend to be high in sodium and other preservatives, and bacon is considered a fat, not a protein.
Again, in general you want to be choosing low-fat and fat-free dairy products – watch out for added sugars from flavored varieties. My main exception is when (and if) you can find products made from grass-fed cows, especially from goats or sheep which tend to be better tolerated than cow’s milk for many people. I love my Kerrygold butter.
Can’t tolerate dairy or choose to abstain from animal products? You will often find dairy milk alternatives here as well made from soy, almond, cashew, coconut, hemp, rice, and who knows what else. Look out for added sugar and try to find one fortified with added calcium, especially if you are avoiding dairy and other higher-calcium foods elsewhere in your diet.
Don’t forget the eggs! I usually purchase both a carton of whole eggs as well as carton egg whites for a protein source. Go for pasture-raised when you can find it.
Frozen foods can be an amazing and nutritious convenience, but unfortunately the freezer section is also home to fat- and calorie-laden frozen desserts and high-sodium TV dinners.
Load up on frozen fruits and vegetables, but try to keep them plain without added sauces or sugar. I try to stock up on steamable bags of broccoli, california blend veggies, asparagus, and cauliflower rice/crumbles, as well as berries. Frozen meat and seafood is also a must, following the same guidelines as those mentioned in the section above.
Don’t get me wrong, I also like to indulge from time to time in a little So Delicious dairy-free dessert (Cashewmilk – Snickerdoodle or Salted Caramel Cluster) or Halo Top (Sea Salt Caramel). Start seeing a bowl of plain Greek yogurt with mixed berries as a healthy dessert alternative more often than ice-cream and your health (and waistline) will thank you!
Dry Goods (aka Center Aisles)
No healthy grocery trip would (or should) be complete without taking a trip down the center aisles:
Baking: flours (whole-wheat, coconut, oat, almond), cocoa powder, stevia, spices, herbs, seasoning blends
Breakfast foods: oats, cream of rice/wheat, whole grain cereal (low sugar, high fiber)
Canned foods: low-sodium beans and vegetables, tuna (pouches or in water), olives, fruit (in juice), applesauce (unsweetened)
Drinks: 100% fruit juice, coffee, tea, water
Grains: rice, whole-grain pasta, quinoa, whole-grain crackers, pretzels, rice cakes
Legumes: dried beans, lentils
Snacks: popcorn kernels, unsalted nuts and seeds, low-sodium jerky, protein bars
Soups: low-sodium stocks and broths