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Changing Lifestyles, Changing Habits: A Heart Healthy Trip through the Grocery Store


You may never have thought of it this way, but the routine chore of grocery shopping has a huge impact on your health. The choices you make when you go to the store are literally some of the most important choices you make in your life, even though it sounds dramatic to put it that way.

The latest trend in the grocery store industry is to have a dietitian on staff to assist shoppers in their quest for better health. If your local food store doesn't offer that service, we're here to help.

Let's go through, aisle by aisle, to take a look at what should stay on the shelf and what should land in your cart.

For starters, don't arrive at the grocery store hungry. This really will help you to make healthier choices. It's much easier to resist potato chips and cookies when your stomach is full.

  • First, the produce: You already know this-fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you. They're lower in calories than many foods, low in fat (many don't have any fat at all), they're good sources of fiber and they're full of nutrients. When you're in this section, vary your colors. Buy yellow peppers, deep red apples (and eat the skin), broccoli, oranges. Add apples to tuna salad. Eat oranges instead of a candy bar. Remember, you want to eat at least five servings a day of foods from the produce section.

  • Dressings and condiments: For the fewest calories, go for the low-fat or no-fat dressings. If you're not too worried about calories, choose the dressings that contain olive or canola oil. Remember that mayonnaise is a high-fat item, usually with more saturated fat than is good for you. Plain, low-fat yogurt is a good substitute. And remember that pickles are high in sodium. It's best to skip them, especially if you're watching your blood pressure. Salsa is an excellent condiment for spicing up burgers. It usually has a low-fat or no-fat content, and it's got vitamin C as well.

  • Pastas and sauces: These items are across the board in terms of health benefits. For pasta, try the whole wheat. It has more fiber and it doesn't convert to sugar as quickly after you eat it as white pasta does. (And remember that a serving of pasta is about the size of a tennis ball.) When you choose a pasta sauce, read the label for fat content. Some sauces are full of flavor and very little fat, so look for those. Cream sauces and sauces made with vodka usually have a higher calorie count.

  • Cereals: The thing that can get you in the cereal aisle is the sugar content. Try to leave the Fruit Loops, Honey Nut Cheerios, Cap'n Crunch etc., out of your cart. Read the labels to find the cereals that have the highest fiber count and the lowest sugar count. Sweeten them up at home with fresh fruit or raisins. (And be sure to use non-fat milk.) If the kids give you grief about your new cereal selections, offer to let them have the sugary stuff one day a week.

  • Prepared foods: This can be another booby trap area if you're trying to eat healthy, especially if there aren't labels on the foods (and there usually aren't). The first thing to keep in mind is portion control. Ask for the smallest containers, especially if you're eating for one. Choose vegetables that aren't in a creamy sauce, lean meats that aren't fried, broiled fish, etc. Don't be shy about asking how a dish was prepared.

  • Snack foods: It's best to roll the cart right past this aisle, but just in case, here are some guidelines: stay away from potato chips and Pringles and corn chips and other fried chips. Avoid cottonseed oil and other hydrogenated fats. Don't be fooled by the "cholesterol free" labels. Technically, they may be true, but if the food contains trans fats or saturated fats, they're more likely to increase your cholesterol.

    If you have to choose a snack, choose pretzels, but keep in mind that even though they're low in fat, they offer no real nutritional value, so you're getting a lot of empty calories from them. Avoid most of the cookies. They're high in saturated fat or trans fat and they're high in calories. (Remember that warning about shopping on a full stomach? That's to help you move through the cookie aisle without a purchase.)

  • Sodas: Avoid them! They're full of sugar and calories. Drink water instead. Diet soda is marginally better than non-diet, but it's not doing you any real good. You need water instead.

  • Baked goods: For the most part, avoid them. Buy whole grain bread, and remember that one slice usually counts as a full serving.

  • Frozen foods: A meal that you prepare with fresh ingredients is likely to be more satisfying and nutritious than most of the frozen meals you can buy. If you're in a time crunch and you really think that a frozen dinner is your only option, read the labels for fat, sodium, sugar and calorie content to make sure you make the healthiest choices.

  • Meats and dairy: If you buy luncheon meats, choose the ones that have reduced fat and sodium. Buy less red meat and replace it with fish and skinless chicken. Choose low-fat or no-fat dairy-milk, yogurt, cheese, etc. Full-fat dairy items aren't healthy and they're full of fat and calories.

    The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
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