Food labels scream out health claims. Store signs boldly shout out price specials. Add that to the cacophony of grocery carts, price scanners and other shoppers, and it's enough to make you want to live on take-out. With so many choices lining supermarket shelves, how can you confidently decide which foods to drop in your cart and which to pass by? Follow us on an aisle-by-aisle guided tour, and you'll never see the grocery store in the same way again.
Pile on the Produce
For good health, disease prevention and ready-for-a-run muscles, half of your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables. So start in the produce section. Bring home a bag of mixed salad greens to reap the benefits from various types of lettuce. Select crunchy veggies in different colors to toss into your salad. Rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants, your salad will help repair tired muscles and fend off ills such as heart disease, diabetes, age-related eye problems, Alzheimer's and cancers of the lung, mouth, esophagus, stomach and colon.
Plan to have at least one fruit and/or vegetable at each meal and most snacks. Experts recommend that you eat something from each of the five major fruit/veggie color groups daily since each contains different nutrients and disease fighters. Grab the standard carrots and tomatoes, but also get creative with more exotic ones such as jicama, purple bell peppers and rutabagas.
Make Meat Count
The protein in fish, poultry, beef and other meats helps promote recovery and rebuilds muscles after a tough workout. Go for variety in this department too. The American Heart Association recommends at least two servings of fish per week to lessen the risk of heart disease. Look for fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, valued for their heart-shielding effects as well as their possible roles in lowering risks for certain cancers, Alzheimer's disease, asthma, depression and diabetes. Plus, omega-3 fatty acids can ease the inflammatory symptoms of arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn's disease. Dine on salmon, lake and rainbow trout, herring, sardines, anchovies, American shad, albacore tuna, tuna steaks and Atlantic, jack and Pacific mackerel. A note of caution: Women who may become pregnant, are pregnant or are nursing should limit albacore tuna and tuna steaks to six ounces per week because elevated mercury levels may cause birth defects.
Beef can be your best source of the minerals iron and zinc. Iron helps transport oxygen, and zinc is necessary for normal immune function, wound healing and amino acid metabolism. Be sure to go lean. Some cuts of beef are loaded with saturated fat, linked to high cholesterol, heart disease and insulin resistance. When a label touts 80 percent lean, it's another way of saying 20 percent fat. Buy ground meats no less than 90 percent lean. The leanest cuts of beef usually have round or loin in the name (top round and tenderloin). When choosing pork, look for loin (as in loin chops). Poultry is a great source of nutrients too. Lose the skin to dump half the fat. Look carefully at labels for ground turkey or chicken--frequently the skin is ground in with the meat.
Do Dairy Right
Go fat-free or low-fat at the dairy case, another saturated-fat landmine. Whole milk is about 3.5 to 4 percent fat-by-weight and provides a whopping five grams saturated fat in an eight-ounce glass. Skim milk is a great choice with no saturated fat. Use butter and fat-rich cheeses and spreads sparingly to stay within the recommended maximum of 20 grams saturated fat per day if you eat a 2000-calorie diet. And watch out for hidden trans fats (also linked to heart disease and other ills) in foods such as margarines and some spreads. Even though the label touts "no trans fats," federal regulations say the product can still contain up to 0.5 grams. So look out for partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients and limit your intake as much as possible.
The dairy case is overflowing with yogurt--non-fat, full-fat, reduced-fat, artificially-sweetened, fiber-added, with granola or cookie crumbles toppings, and on. Watch out for saturated fat and added sugars (and calories). Kid-friendly yogurt usually means loaded with sugar. For something different, try delicious Greek yogurt, thick and creamy and perfect for tzatziki, cold cucumber soup and other Middle Eastern favorites. For a dose of friendly bacteria that may protect your digestive system, select yogurt bearing the "live and active cultures" seal. Products such as Dannon Activia and Breyers Light! Probiotic Plus Yogurt are designed specifically to increase favorable bacteria.
Break Some Eggs and Add Oil
Once shunned for its cholesterol content, the egg has made a comeback. The American Heart Association now recommends up to one egg per day, which will give you about 10 percent of your daily protein needs along with a sizeable dose of lutein for your eyes. Some designer eggs are fortified with omega-3 fatty acids and may be a good choice for people avoiding fish and other sources of these health-enhancing fats.
All vegetable oils are 120 calories per tablespoon and have 14 grams of fat, most of it the healthy unsaturated kind. Olive oil is a good choice for its heart-friendly monounsaturated fats. Both soybean and canola oils have respectable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, also heart-healthy. Choose the one you like best or vary them for different recipes.
A bowl of cereal can be a great meal for carb-hungry muscles or simply a bowl full of fortified sugar and refined grains. Linda McDonald, M.S., R.D., editor of Supermarket Savvy, recommends cereal (and breads) with a whole grain listed first in the ingredients. "Don't take for granted that 'made with whole grains' means that it's a good source of whole grains," she says. A healthful-sounding cereal or bread might contain just a small bit of whole grains and a larger amount of refined grains. "A full serving of whole grains is 16 grams," she adds. Many products bear the Whole Grain Stamp (wholegrainscouncil.org), indicating the amount of whole grains in a serving. Federal guidelines encourage at least three servings or 48 grams whole grains daily. Vary your grains. Choose cereal and breads made with whole oats, whole barley, whole wheat and whole corn.
Food labels don't differentiate between added sugars and the natural sugars in fruit. Compare cereal labels for sugar, but expect cereals with raisins or other fruit to be higher in sugar than cereal without fruit. Even though it has more sugar, Mini-Wheats (frosted or not) with raisins is a much better choice than the highly processed, lower-in-sugar Rice Krispies.
Stock the Pantry
It's true. You can get good nutrition in a can. According to a University of Illinois study, canned fruits and vegetables pack as much fiber as their fresh counterparts. Canned pumpkin has 20 times the vitamin A as fresh pumpkin because it's more concentrated. And compared to fresh, canned tomato products have more available lycopene--a carotenoid thought to be important in cancer prevention--because the body absorbs it better from cooked tomatoes.
Canned fruits, vegetables, beans, soups, tuna and chicken can each fill a nutritional gap and help you throw together a speedy meal. Always keep some on hand for power outages and emergencies. According to the Canned Food Alliance, canned food lasts at least two years. After that, taste and texture may deteriorate, but nutritional quality and safety remain. To find the age of a canned food, call the toll-free number on the product label and report the code stamped on the can.
Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for Hampton Roads Center for Clinical Research in Norfolk, Va.