From the paleo diet to raw foods, the world is not short of diet plans and nutrition philosophies. As I explained in an earlier post about mindful eating, however, I often counsel my clients to focus more on achieving moderation and balance first, rather than pursuing a radical dietary regime change that they may find hard to sustain later on.
Dietary needs vary from person to person, but there are some general principles that most of us should follow, including:
Eat more fruits and vegetables
Include whole grains
Consume fewer processed foods
Reduce your intake of salt, sugar, and trans fats
Enjoy saturated fats, meat, and animal protein only in moderation
Given that the grocery store is where good intentions so often go amiss, here are some practical tips for healthier, stress-free grocery shopping.
Plan your meals and make a list
Impulse purchases are one of the most common downfalls for the would-be healthy eater. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: salt, sugar and processed foods can be habit-forming, and savvy marketers have learned to exploit our cravings to help drive sales. So plan your week's meals in advance, making sure to include plenty of healthy, vegetable-heavy meals in the process, and then create a grocery list that you actually stick to. That doesn't mean you can't ever enjoy the occasional impulse purchase again — but I do recommend being strict with yourself until you've established a healthier lifestyle.
Don't shop hungry
This is common advice, especially for those trying to lose weight. As I mentioned above, impulse purchases are the enemy of healthy eating — and those cookies sure do look tempting when you've skipped lunch. (Shopping with a basket, not a cart, can also be a great way to stop yourself from loading up on things you don't need.)
Shop at the farmers market first
I'm a big advocate for local, fresh, sustainably grown foods. But it can be hard to know what is available at the farmers market each week. One way to make sure you load up on fresh, local produce first is to shop at the farmers market before you hit the big box grocery store — that way you can check off the items on your list that are available locally before resorting to the supermarket aisles. Having just advised against impulse purchases, the farmers market can also be a great place to improvise. My husband and I sometimes like to challenge ourselves to invent a meal from scratch, entirely from the seasonal products available at the market.
Learn to read nutrition labels
Understanding how much protein, fiber, carbohydrates or fat you and your family should be consuming is an important part of eating more healthily. But decoding what nutrition labels are actually telling you is easier said than done. The Food and Drug Administration has a useful quick guide on how to read a nutrition label, which I recommend checking out. (And it's worth looking at what other countries do, too. In Australia, packaged food comes with a health star rating system. A scale from zero to five stars shows consumers how nutritious a processed food is.)
Be aware, however, that sometimes the best nutrition labels and ingredients lists are the ones that don't exist — the less processed a food is, the less labeling required. (There's a reason why apples don't carry an ingredients list.) Given the choice, I always recommend that clients focus on real, whole foods like fruits, veggies and whole grains first — before they using nutrition labels to make healthier choices about the other foods they buy.
Shop the perimeter, never buy at the register
If you think about the layout of your average grocery store, the perimeter tends to be where all the healthier, whole foods are located — fresh fruits and veggies, fresh meats, dairy etc. Try to shop mainly in these departments and then be selective about the aisles containing processed foods. Most importantly, do your best to avoid the candy displays at the cash register. They were put there to tempt you. Be strong and resist.
Shopping for healthier groceries doesn't have to be about hard-and-fast rules. Your end goal is not the perfect diet, but rather a healthier, more balanced attitude toward the food you consume. You, not your cravings, should be in control of what you eat.
Jenni Grover, MS RD LDN, is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners in Durham, N.C. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in January 2014.