Meeting your nutritional goals starts with the foods you decide to buy at the grocery store. Having a plan when you walk in, and understanding what to look for on labels to help with your specific goals, will set you up for success each shopping trip you go on.
When selecting which foods to purchase, the most important place to look first is the ingredients list. The great news is that if you are buying Green Light Foods, most of them will have no ingredients list or single item lists: Apple. Black beans. Spinach. Wild rice. When buying something premade or packaged, however, the ingredients list will tell you what is in the product in order by weight. As you look at the ingredients list, keep in mind where the food will fall on the stoplight: Green, Yellow, or Red. Ask yourself if the ingredients match your goals, or if there are amounts of sodium, fat, sugar, or animal products that you have decided against keeping in your daily meals..
Questions to ask when reading the ingredients list are:
- Does the number of ingredients make sense to the product, or are there many added preservatives, gums, sugars, or flavorings?
- Are the ingredients something I would find in a typical kitchen cupboard?
- Do I know what each of these ingredients are?
Notes about Sugar: Avoid items with sugar in the first 3-5 ingredients. Other names for sugar: high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, evaporated cane juice, agave, honey, molasses, maple syrup.
Be aware of multiple types of sugar in one ingredient list, Does your list have brown rice syrup, honey, and cane juice? Companies will do this so that sugar is not listed in the top ingredients by weight, even though when you combine the many types of sugar it may be at the beginning of the list.
The next most important thing to read is the nutrition label. This can give great, quick-insight to see if the food fits within the lifestyle you are seeking.
Serving Size: Standardized amount of food to understand other nutrition facts. This is not the same as portion size. The portion size is the amount recommended to be eaten to meet health and nutrition goals, and is up to an individual’s needs.
Calories: Amount of calories in single serving size. This is an estimate, as each body metabolizes different foods at different rates.
Total Fat: The amount of fat in grams per serving size.
Saturated Fat: The amount of saturated fat in grams per serving (included in total fat). Saturated fat raises LDL (bad) cholesterol, so this number should be kept LOW.
Cholesterol: Amount of cholesterol in mg. Plant-based foods do not contain cholesterol, so this should always be 0mg in a food claiming to be plant-based.
Sodium: Amount of sodium in mg per serving. A good goal is less than 2300 mg per day. A good rule of thumb is that if the mg of sodium is more than the number of calories it is a high sodium food.
Total Carbohydrates, Dietary Fiber, and Total Sugars: Listed in grams. Total sugars includes natural sugars and added sugars.
Protein: Listed in grams, often without a % daily value. It is very rare to be eating too little protein in the United States.
Vitamins and Minerals: Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Potassium are the only ones required to be listed. This does not mean these are the only vitamins and minerals in a product.
Let’s look at some examples. What peanut butter would you buy?
When you first go to the grocery store with the mindset of finding foods that will help you to meet your goals, it can take a while! Plan ahead so that you can take your time to read ingredients and nutrition labels, and don’t be afraid to try new foods!
Here are some tips and tricks to make grocery shopping even easier:
- Make a list: Know what meals you will be making this week, and what you already have at home.
- Organize your list into sections of the grocery store, so you’re not aimlessly wandering (and more likely to pick up things not on your list!)
- If you want a fun food or treat, plan it into your list! Make the decision ahead of time what you are going to get, and how much of it you will have, so that at the store – you are still allowing yourself to have freedom in the foods you eat, with the confidence that you made the decision logically at home first.
- When at the grocery store, remember that whole-foods are typically kept around the outside of the store (with the exception of beans and grains). The middle of the store is typically where the processed foods and ingredients are kept, so by keeping most of your shopping towards the outside of the store, you’ll naturally be buying less processed foods.
- Don’t go to the store hungry, you’re more likely to stray from your list if you are shopping on an empty stomach and in an “everything looks good!” kind of mood.
- Give yourself time! Plan to do your shopping on a day where you have enough time to read labels and find foods you are confident buying. This will take less and less time each trip as you find “go-to” brands and products you love.