Good Health Starts at the Supermarket

Health problems related to diet, including high blood pressure, clogged arteries, diabetes and weight gain, do not appear overnight. They result from years of bad habits, adding pounds calorie by calorie and eating foods that are low in nutrients and high in excess sugars and fats.

Healthy eating habits start with the choices you make in the supermarket aisles. If you fill up your pantry and refrigerator with empty calories, you and your family are sure to eat them. Develop healthy shopping habits, and you will naturally find yourself eating healthier and more nutritious foods.  

Here are some rules of thumb for healthier shopping:

  • Fresh is best. Processed foods such as packaged cookies, frozen meals, cereals, snack bars and boxed dinners contain extra sugar and fat to make them taste good, and preservatives and dyes to keep them fresh and make them look appealing. Canned soups and vegetables contain extra salt. Use processed foods only occasionally, as special treats or for convenience when you need a meal in a hurry. Packaged cookies and snacks should be served in small quantities after or between meals, not eaten as meal substitutes. Avoid making a routine of eating processed breakfast foods.
  • Ignore the hype. Processed food manufacturers bombard us every day with ads equating junk food with friendship, joy, love, security, success and power. Children’s TV shows are interspersed with messages that food is fun. Packages are emblazoned with words like “natural,” “organic,” “healthy,” and “whole grain” to make us think the food they contain is good for us. Stick to the facts- read the labels to see what you are really buying.
  • It is OK to treat yourself to a cookie or a decadent dessert now and then, but be aware of what you are eating. Cut down on calories elsewhere and make sure you are getting the nutrients you need from other foods.
  • Make a shopping list. Grocery stores are carefully staged to tempt you with colors, smells, music and seasonal displays into buying items on impulse. Before you go to the store, make a list of healthy foods and stick to it.
  • Get your family involved. Ask for suggestions when you write your shopping list. Let your children help pick out fruits and vegetables, and talk about why they are good to eat.
  • Know your store. Shop often in the same stores, so you know where to find everything. According to the Food Marketing Institute, you will spend two dollars for every one minute you spend in the grocery store. The more quickly you can locate the items on your shopping list, the less likely you are to buy unhealthy foods or items you don’t really need.
  • Do not shop when you are hungry – you will be tempted to buy more than you need.
  • Start by shopping around the perimeter of the store, where the fresh produce, meat and dairy are located. Save the middle aisles, where the processed foods are, for last.
  • Buy fresh, locally-grown produce in season. Locally grown produce is picked when it is almost ripe, and spends less time losing its nutrients in cold storage. It is often featured at lower prices in grocery stores. You can also find locally-grown fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets and smaller family-run and ethnic food stores. When you can’t find the fresh vegetables you want, frozen is a good choice.  Frozen vegetables are selected for their flavor and picked when they are ripe.
  • For almost four decades, the USDA recommended a diet composed of the Basic Four Food Groups. In 1992 it came out with the Food Pyramid, a triangle emphasizing that we should eat more grains and less meat. In 2010, it introduced My Plate, a graphic illustrating a plate made of 50 percent  fruits and vegetables.
  • foods low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and salt (sodium) will help to ensure that you are eating a healthy diet while helping to maintain a healthy weight. If you choose to drink alcoholic beverages, do so sensibly and in moderation.
  • Dip cut apples or pears in water with a half-teaspoon of salt, or in orange juice
  • Refined carbohydrates like white bread and white pasta quickly metabolize into sugar after you eat them.
  • Know what you are buying. Learn to read labels at a glance:
  • Calories – Our energy needs vary with age, gender, and amount of physical activity, from about 1,500 per day for children (age 4 and up) to about 2,500 for adults (3,000 for adolescent and tall males). These quantities are adjusted if you are trying to gain or lose weight. Keep these amounts in mind when you are reading labels on snacks, sauces, drinks and desserts.  For a single portion of any food, 40 calories is low, 100 calories is moderate, and 400 calories is high.
  • Portion size – The nutritional information on the label refers to a single portion, and there may be more than one portion in a package. For example, a single portion might be half a candy bar; if you eat the whole candy bar you are eating double the number of calories listed on the label.
  • Calories and calories from fat –To maintain a healthy weight, look for foods in which 20% or less of the calories are from fat. In other words, for every 100 total calories, no more than 20 should be calories from fat. A food in which more than half of the calories are from fat is a food to avoid.  
  • Percent Daily Value (%DV) tells you what percentage of the recommended daily amount of key nutrients is contained in a single portion. (The percentage is based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet.) Key nutrients include dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. For any nutrient, 5% is considered low and 20% is high. A food that gives you 5% of your daily calcium needs is a low-calcium food.  
  • Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease, some cancers, or high blood pressure.
  •  Important: Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.
  • For certain populations, they advise that adolescents, especially girls, consume 1,300mg (130%DV) and post-menopausal women consume 1,200mg (120%DV) of calcium daily. The DV for calcium on food labels is 1,000mg. Don't be fooled -- always check the label for calcium because you can't make assumptions about the amount of calcium in specific food categories. Example: the amount of calcium in milk, whether skim or whole, is generally the same per serving, whereas the amount of calcium in the same size yogurt container (8oz) can vary from 20-45 %DV.
  • Trans Fat: Experts could not provide a reference value for trans fat nor any other information that FDA believes is sufficient to establish a Daily Value or %DV. Scientific reports link trans fat (and saturated fat) with raising blood LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, both of which increase your risk of coronary heart disease, a leading cause of death in the US.
  • Important: Health experts recommend that you keep your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol as low as possible as part of a nutritionally balanced diet.
  • Protein: A %DV is required to be listed if a claim is made for protein, such as "high in protein". Otherwise, unless the food is meant for use by infants and children under 4 years old, none is needed. Current scientific evidence indicates that protein intake is not a public health concern for adults and children over 4 years of age.
  • Sugars: No daily reference value has been established for sugars because no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in a day. Keep in mind, the sugars listed on the Nutrition Facts label include naturally occurring sugars (like those in fruit and milk) as well as those added to a food or drink. Check the ingredient list for specifics on added sugars.If you are concerned about your intake of sugars, make sure that added sugars are not listed as one of the first few ingredients. Other names for added sugars include: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, and maple syrup.
Comparison Example

Below are two kinds of milk- one is "Reduced Fat," the other is "Nonfat" milk. Each serving size is one cup. Which has more calories and more saturated fat? Which one has more calcium? 



BRING A LIST… And stick to it! Healthy decisions start at home. Planning ahead can improve your health while saving you time and money. Before shopping, decide which foods you need, and the quantity that will last until your next shopping trip.

Consider creating a shopping list based on the MyPlate food groups to include a variety of healthy food choices. Think about your menu ideas when adding items to your list. Write your list to match the groups to the layout of your store.

Have everyone in your family make suggestions for the shopping list. Kids (and adults too!) are more willing to try new foods when they help to pick them. Ideas for getting kids involved in making healthy food selections can be found at Supermarket Sleuths.


Filed Under


Internal Medicine

Weight Loss

Skin Care