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5 Ways to Make Grocery Shopping Healthier for You and the Planet

Food

Grocery stores in the U.S. are brimming with plenty. Aisle after aisle in these sprawling food meccas is filled with multiple choices, often of similar or identical products—that it can be overwhelming.

Maybe you enjoy food "window shopping"—browsing the alternatives and seeing what products are out there before making your picks. Or maybe you're one of those people who makes a list and a plan and hurries to get just what you need and get out. Either way, there are somethings to keep in mind for healthier shopping beyond the old saw about "Don't go grocery shopping when you're hungry."

The produce department is always the healthiest place to do most of your grocery shopping.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

1. You've probably heard this one before too but avoid the middle aisles as much as possible and shop the perimeters. That's where the unprocessed foods tend to be—produce, dairy products, meats, usually the bakery. Of course, there will be times when you need to pick up coffee, tea, flour or crackers. But the middle aisles are where a lot of processed, packaged foods—like sugary cereals—lie in wait.

2. Start in the produce department and make your cornerstone purchases there. If you fill up your basket and budget there, there's less room for that bag of cookies. And don't just go for a handful of your old favorites when it comes to vegetables and fruits. While almost all are loaded with healthful vitamins and minerals linked to prevention of a whole range of diseases, each has different nutrients in differing amounts. Kale is great, but so are collards and mustard greens and other leafy vegetables. Get a variety of colors too because color is an indicator of which nutrients that particular one has in abundance. And try something new as well. That odd-looking Asian melon might become a new favorite.

3. When you're shopping in those middle aisles, read the labels. Go for the choice that has fewer additives and mystery ingredients, less sugar and salt, and no high-fructose corn syrup. Even if it has a splashy banner that says something like "All Natural!," investigate. While "organic" actually does have a meaning, "natural" doesn't. It can be slapped on anything.

4. In the dairy section, look for butter and milk that are labeled as free of growth hormones and antibiotics. As for eggs, the variety of labels like "cage-free," "free-range," "pasture -raised," "Omega-3 enriched" and "organic" can be confusing. The first three refer to the conditions under which the chickens were raised with free-range better than cage-free and pasture-raised best of all. Organic assures that the chickens have had organic feed and no hormones. Omega-3 enriched is one of those things that makes less difference than marketers want you to think. And no, brown eggs aren't healthier than white ones.

5. Watch out in the beverage aisle, although unless you are picking up coffee or tea, we're not sure why you are there. There are healthy juices certainly, but they're probably in the coolers, not in the aisles where they'd have to be packed with preservatives to extend their shelf life. And that includes some of those fancy energy and athletic drinks which frequently have a lot of added sugar as well.

We'll close with another tip you probably already know. When you head for the checkout, you should be done. Many markets load up the shelf by the checkout with impulse snack purchases and these are virtually never good for you. Refrain.

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