Tips for Healthy Shopping at the Grocery Store

Walking through aisles of tempting foods at the grocery store can be overwhelming. Follow these tips to choose healthy and delicious foods the next time you go shopping. Plus, check out our dietitian-approved grocery picks in the top six challenging sections of the grocery store for people with diabetes.
  • Your Healthy Guide to Grocery Shopping

    With an average of 46,000 foods in the supermarket -- many touting claims like fat-free and low-sodium -- it's no surprise that cruising the aisles can leave you in a maze of confusion. Follow along on this guided tour of some particularly perplexing sections of the store and start wheeling your cart with confidence.

  • Bread Aisle

    Bread's bad-boy reputation is not deserved. As with all carbohydrate-containing foods, quality counts and portion size rules. Eating whole wheat bread and other whole grains may lower your risk for heart disease, certain cancers, and even weight gain.

    Look past color: Don't be fooled by the color of bread or misleading terminology on packaging. Some refined breads are dark because of molasses, caramel, or other coloring. Go straight to the ingredients label to choose breads that identify 100 percent whole wheat or other whole grain (such as barley or oats) as the first ingredient. "Enriched wheat flour" is the long way to indicate the bread is made with white flour. "Multigrain" and "high fiber" don't guarantee a whole grain product either.

    Put a stamp on it: Look for the Whole Grain Stamp. Any product bearing the stamp contains at least 8 grams of whole grains. A serving of whole grains is 16 grams. Aim for 48 grams (or three servings) each day.

    Focus on fiber: Before buying a loaf of bread, be sure it contains at least 2 grams of fiber per slice.

    Roll with variety: Mix up your bread options. Make sandwiches with whole grain tortillas, pitas, and flatbreads, too.

  • Best Bread Picks

    1. Mission Carb Balance Soft Taco Flour Tortillas have great texture and 11 grams of fiber each.

    2. Pepperidge Farm Soft Honey Whole Wheat bread is soft and flavorful with 21 grams of carb per slice.

    3. Thomas' 100% Whole Wheat Bagel Thins are tasty for breakfast or lunch and contain an impressive 110 calories and 5 grams of fiber each.

  • Canned Foods Aisle

    Canned and packaged foods are the ultimate in convenience, but traps abound in these aisles, especially regarding sodium. A single can of soup may saddle you with more than 1,600 milligrams of sodium. Current guidelines suggest adults eat less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily.

    Serve a soup pairing: There are plenty of reduced-sodium soups on the shelves, but they aren't always low enough. Pair them with naturally low-sodium foods such as a big salad or fresh fruit, says Carrie Taylor, R.D., LDN, lead registered dietitian with Big Y Foods, Inc.

    Bring home the goods: Stock up on canned goods: tuna and chicken packed in water, reduced-sodium vegetables and beans, and fruits in natural juices in case of power outages and other emergencies (like getting home late from work). According to the Canned Food Alliance, canned foods last two years.

    Get sauce savvy: Skip the Alfredo and other cheesy pasta sauces in favor of lower-fat tomato-base sauces. Be alert to serving sizes. A typical serving of marinara sauce is 1/2 cup with 70 calories and 2 grams of fat. The Alfredo may be listed as 1/4 cup with 110 calories and 10 grams of fat -- a serving is only half as much marinara sauce. Instead of using a cheesy sauce, sprinkle a little Parmesan on top.

    Nab the no-salt-added: Lower-sodium canned vegetables are "just as nutritious as their fresh and frozen counterparts while being more affordable in the long run," Taylor says. If your family scowls at the lower-sodium products, ease the conversion by buying one can each of the reduced-sodium and regular varieties and mixing them together.

  • Best Canned Food Picks

    1. Campbell's V8 Golden Butternut Squash Soup is low in fat but thick and velvety, with only 90 calories and 3 grams of fiber per cup.

    2. Eden Organic beans, plain or seasoned, are low in sodium and versatile in salads, soups, and entrees.

    3. Classico Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce is a low-fat choice and has only 50 calories per 1/2 cup.

  • Meat Counter

    In the meat and deli sections, zero in on lean choices to limit calories and saturated fat, which is the type of fat linked to heart disease and insulin resistance.

    Look for lean: Meats labeled 80 percent lean are 20 percent fat, and that's too much. Find the leanest cuts of beef by choosing those with "round" or "loin" in the name, such as round steak or tenderloin, says SuperValu registered dietitian Kim Kirchherr, M.S., R.D., CDE. Carry with you a list of the 29 leanest cuts of beef on a wallet card from the Cattlemen's Beef Board (download it at

    Obey ground rules: Don't be fooled by ground poultry. "You can't judge turkey by its packaging," says Barbara Ruhs, M.S., R.D., LDN, a dietitian for Bashas' grocery stores. Chicken and turkey are frequently ground with the skin, adding considerably to their fat count, she says. Leave behind any ground meat that isn't at least 90 percent lean.

    Skim the skin: Buy only skinless poultry or dump the skin at home, before or after cooking, to cut out half the fat.

    Choose fresh: For the best taste, buy only the amount of meat or fish you'll use within a day. Shop for fresh-looking meat and fish with shiny, firm flesh. The surface of fish should spring back when pressed lightly with your thumb.

    Fish for it: Twice a week, eat fish high in omega-3 fatty acids. Choose salmon, lake or rainbow trout, tuna, or herring. Children and women of childbearing age need to limit consumption of mercury, a metal toxic to the developing brain and nervous system that's sometimes present in seafood. Download a wallet card listing seafood with the lowest mercury levels at

  • Best Meat & Seafood Picks

    1. For the leanest cuts of beef, pick an eye of round roast or steak, sirloin tip side steak, or top round roast or steak.

    2. For pork, tenderloin is the leanest choice.

    3. Choose any available brand of meat or poultry that is labeled free of hormones and not given antibiotic-containing feed.

  • Dairy Aisle

    The milk and cheese aisle can be a saturated-fat landmine, so always pick fat-free or reduced-fat options.

    Pack a cheesy punch: Add a flavor kick to omelets or salads with small amounts of strong-flavor cheeses such as sharp cheddar, feta, and Parmesan, says SuperValu registered dietitian Kim Kirchherr, M.S., R.D., CDE. The more pungent the flavor, the less cheese you will need to use.

    Go for better yogurt: When it comes to yogurt, "Go Greek and you'll never look back," says Barbara Ruhs, M.S., R.D., LDN, a dietitian for Bashas' grocery stores. Even the fat-free varieties are thick, creamy, and indulgent. Make a cold cucumber soup with plain Greek yogurt, or mix in a little salsa for a taco topper or dip for veggies. For a sweet treat, stir in a mashed banana with cinnamon. Or use plain Greek yogurt to hold chicken salad together, says Carrie Taylor, R.D., LDN, lead registered dietitian with Big Y Foods, Inc.

    Spot the right spread: Avoid unhealthful fats by choosing a soft, buttery spread without trans fats and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat per tablespoon. You'll also need to read the label; it's legal to claim zero trans fats with anything less than 0.5 gram per serving. If the label lists partially hydrogenated oils -- code for trans fats -- put it back on the shelf. A little bit here and there adds up to too much, Taylor says.

    Know amounts that matter: Some spreads, such as Promise Activ and Benecol, contain plant sterols -- natural ingredients added to a variety of foods for their cholesterol-lowering properties. You won't get improved lab results unless you consistently eat plant sterols in the recommended amounts (one to three servings daily). Increase your total intake with other plant sterol-enhanced foods such as particular brands of breads, cheese, orange juice, and more.

    Make a thinner thickener: Lighten up cream-base soups with fat-free half-and-half thickened with just a bit of flour.

  • Best Dairy Picks

    1. Cabot reduced-fat cheddar cheeses are very low in total and saturated fat per ounce and great for cooking and melting.

    2. Smart Balance Light Omega-3 spread has 50 calories per tablespoon and no partially hydrogenated oils.

    3. Fage Total 0-Percent Greek Yogurt is thick, indulgent, and contains 15 grams of protein per 6-ounce carton.

  • Frozen Foods Section

    According to a 2002 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, prepackaged meals helped people with type 2 diabetes lose weight and improve their risk factors for heart disease, presumably because of the simplicity and built-in portion control. But be alert to more sodium and fat traps in this aisle of convenience.

    Buy by the numbers: Pick frozen meals with less than 400 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 600 milligrams of sodium, and with at least a couple of grams of fiber and 14 grams of protein. Match the carbohydrate content to your personal meal plan.

    Get picky with pizza: Some frozen pizzas are three or more servings but look like just one or two -- keep that in mind when assessing the nutrition panel. Buy a veggie pizza or doctor up a plain one with fresh herbs and your favorite veggies.

    Veg out a meal: Before cooking, add frozen vegetables right on top of your frozen meal to make the portion larger and more nutritious. Think of frozen meals or entrees as starters. Add vegetables, herbs, leftover cooked brown rice -- whatever it takes to round out the meal.

    Try frozen fish: If you aren't comfortable cooking fresh fish, try a frozen seafood meal or fish fillets.

    Grab some frigid fruit: Buy frozen berries and other fruits without added sugars to top oatmeal, or puree 1/2 cup and enjoy like sorbet.

  • Best Frozen Food Picks

    1. Gorton's All Natural Garlic Butter Grilled Fillets are simple to prepare and have only 290 milligrams of sodium per serving.

    2. Amy's Pizza Margherita is flavorful, low in saturated fat, and free of trans fat.

    3. Kashi Chicken Pasta Pomodoro meets all of the frozen food nutritional guidelines and has 6 grams of fiber per serving.

  • Cereal Aisle

    Depending on your choices in the cereal aisle, you can pour yourself a bowl of whole grain, low-sugar nutrition or multicolor sugar bombs -- and everything in between.

    Turn to the side panel: Read the ingredients label and look for the Whole Grain Stamp, just as recommended for the bread aisle.

    Opt for oats: Be sure to take home some oatmeal. The fiber in oats may help lower cholesterol and steady blood glucose levels. Skip instant varieties to avoid the added sugars, flavorings, and salt.

    Find a fiber cereal: Choose cereals that provide at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. More is better to make a dent in the recommended 21-38 grams adults should eat each day. Make your own mix: If your favorite cereal lacks fiber or packs iin sugar, mix it with a more wholesome choice.

    Take measure: When comparing cereals, make note of the serving sizes listed. They range from 1/2 cup to more than a cup.

    How to Read Food Labels

  • Best Cereal Picks

    1. Kashi GoLean Crunch! is delightfully sweet and has 8 grams of fiber and 9 grams of protein per cup.

    2. Quaker Steel Cut Oats have a heartier texture than quick oats and are worth the cooking time.

    3. Fiber One Original contains 60 calories and 14 grams of fiber per 1/2 cup; mix it with yogurt or other cereals for a delicious breakfast.

  • Grocery Store Rating Systems

    Various symbols adorn both food packages and shelf tags to alert you to nutrition and health messages. Some nutrition rating systems, like NuVal and Guiding Stars, are based on proprietary algorithms that consider the presence of fiber, vitamins, minerals, saturated fat, and more. Others, like Nutrition iQ, identify the products that meet specific criteria and then call out one or more attributes such as low-calorie or high-calcium. Can these systems help you?

    The pros: An icon or color tag is a simple way to help you identify products with certain qualities. It can, for example, encourage you to trade up from a cracker or yogurt with just one star or a low score to one with two stars or a higher score.

    The cons: It's not always clear how the ratings were determined, so you can't be certain that a generic score or symbol fits your personal health needs. Don't assume that bread or cereal with one rating is equal to a canned vegetable or cheese with the identical rating. Food categories are ranked individually, but you still have to put together a balanced meal on your own.

    Best advice: To get the best value from these systems, visit their websites and read in-store educational materials. Continue to scrutinize the nutrition facts panel and monitor portions.

  • Shopping Trip Trip-Ups

    If you're buying more than you planned, you might be falling for some common supermarket snares

    Health aura: People tend to eat more when products make claims like reduces the risk of heart disease or low fat, according to research. Use your label-reading prowess; ignore front-of-package claims and go straight to the nutrition facts panel.

    Bargains that aren't: Don't be fooled by product placement and big promotional signs. End-cap displays that look like special sales might not be a deal at all. Locate the product and its price on its usual shelf to see if it's really a bargain.

    You see it, you buy it: It's hard to resist a box of snack cakes when they're placed right across from the frozen broccoli. Put all of your impulse buys in the cart's child seat. Before checking out, hold each item and ask yourself if you really want or need it.

    Meandering the store. You have to pass a lot of junk just to pick up staple items like milk or bread. Limit impromptu purchases by carrying a hand basket instead of wheeling a cart.

    Must-Have Diabetes Tips for Grocery Shopping

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