While the grocery store has far healthier options than the drive-thru, not all aisles are created equal. In fact, the layout is specifically designed to entice shoppers to succumb to their cravings with their wallets, which usually means putting the sugary, high-fat, high-calorie options in prominent places. Even the experts have their weaknesses: "I definitely find that there are certain aisles where I can’t help but grab unhealthy choices, or at least more than my fair share," says registered dietitian Toby Amidor.
Steer the Cart Clear of These 8 Calorie Traps
To ensure that you're making smart selections, try to avoid these potential pitfalls:
- Soft Drink Aisle: Don't be tempted by all those colorful stacks of fizzy, sugary sodas. "This aisle definitely provides more calories than nutrition," says Judy Barbe, registered dietitian and author of "Your 6-Week Guide to LiveBest: Simple Solutions for Fresh Food & Well-Being." She recommends sticking to water or flavored seltzers instead.
- Chip and Packaged Snacks Aisle: Although she teaches her clients to live by an "all foods fit" mentality, there are some aisles of the supermarket that registered dietitian Chelsey Amer prefers to avoid, starting with packaged snacks. "A smart snack contains a combination of protein and fiber, and most of the heavily processed and packaged foods don't provide this important combination to keep you full in between meals," she says. Many of these crunchy snacks are also "trigger" foods for weight-loss clients, meaning they can cause people to go overboard. If you can’t keep that salty craving at bay, consider swapping your regular indulgence for the DIY variety.
- Candy Aisle: There are far healthier ways to satisfy sugar cravings, such as fresh or dried fruit, whole-grain popcorn with some chocolate bits, roasted nuts with honey or oatmeal with a sprinkling of brown sugar or cinnamon.
- Cereal Aisle: Liza Baker, health coach with Simply: Health Coaching, says this is an especially pernicious place to be in a grocery store. "Cereals are full of artificial colors and flavorings, overdoses of sweeteners (regardless of the origin), white or refined carbs, and preservatives." Instead, shop for ingredients to make one of these healthy (yet quick and easy) breakfast ideas.
- Bread and Baked Goods Aisles: According to Ken Immer, president of Culinary Health Solutions, these are places where you will find some of the least nutrient-dense foods, and plenty of preservatives. "These foods are what we like to call 'fractionated,' where the macronutrients of carbs, fats, proteins and fiber are separated in order to extend the shelf life," he says. "Even if they're touted as 'whole grain' or 'made with natural ingredients,' when you take the foods apart, the body cannot use them as effectively, so any remaining nutrition is not as valuable."
- Bulk Foods Aisle: Baker compares bulk foods aisles to salad bars—many are lured in by their "health halo" and then end up overindulging. Avoid stocking up on the wrong bulk foods by focusing on whole grains, dried beans and peas, spices, herbs, nuts, seeds and dried fruits (in moderation). Ignore the chocolate- and yogurt-covered snacks and snack mixes.
- The Bakery: Muffins and cookies and cakes, oh my! These freshly-baked pastries and confections may not be quite as processed as some of the packaged goods, but most are loaded with calories and sugar. Steer clear of the area before you're seduced by the appetizing aromas.
- The Checkout Lane: Okay, so this one is impossible to avoid (unless you opt for the self-checkout), but do your best to keep your blinders on. Checkout is the store's last-ditch attempt to wheedle you into grabbing some sugary impulse purchases. Stay focused on unloading your groceries, and if you must indulge in a treat, choose low-calorie mints or chewing gum.
7 Smart Grocery Shopping Strategies
- Shop like you eat. Here's one trick Amer recommends to her clients: Fill your grocery cart similar to how you'd fill your plate at meals—half veggies, one-quarter whole grains and one-quarter protein. "This will almost always guarantee that you can create well-balanced, properly portioned meals at home," she says.
- Downsize your cart. When you're pushing around a full-size buggy, it's easy to fall into the trap of tossing in "just one more thing"—multiple times. Amidor suggests using a smaller cart or hand-held basket, which only has room for the essentials.
- Hug the perimeter. Baker reiterates the common advice to avoid the middle aisles. "Most of the whole, close-to-the-source foods that nourish us deeply are found on the periphery of a traditionally laid-out grocery store: produce, dairy, meats, bulk whole grains and dried beans," she says. "The closer you get to the middle, the more processed the food." That said, Amidor points out that the middle's not all bad—the inside aisles offer some healthy options like olive oil, canned beans, canned tomato products, some whole grains and frozen fruit, so when you do venture to the middle, be sure to grab only what you need and keep your eye on the healthy living prize.
- Pick produce first. "Many grocery store layouts propel you to the produce department upon entry," says Barbe. "Take the hint and fill up on colorful vegetables and fruits. Remember, if it’s not in your kitchen, there is no way it will end up on your fork." Although fresh is usually best, frozen or canned veggies are also good choices—just be sure to opt for the plain frozen veggies and not the ones in creamy sauces.
- Choose smart snacks. If you do find yourself wandering down the snack aisle, look for an option with as few ingredients as possible—and ones that you recognize. Among Amer's favorites are roasted chickpeas, edamame or popcorn made with just kernels, oil and salt.
- Get on the whole-grain train. Whole grains add texture and flavor while also delivering a boost of health benefits. Plus, studies have suggested that eating whole grains can help to increase metabolism and calorie burning, and other research has linked them to a healthier gut. Instead of refined white breads and pastas, Barbe suggests swapping for brown rice, whole-grain pasta or bulgur.
- Never shop hungry. Grocery shopping with a rumbling tummy is a recipe for unhealthy impulse purchases. "You don’t have to eat a huge meal, but even a little something satisfying to fill your belly can be good enough for a quick shopping trip," says Immer. "An apple or even a full bottle of water, can put hunger on hold while you shop."