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An Aisle-By-Aisle Guide to Your Health Food Store
Don't get your vegetables in the supplement aisle
Most natural food emporiums have sizable supplement departments, compared with supermarkets, accounting for up to 15 percent of the square footage of some stores. Though supplements can help round out nutritional shortfalls, they can't replace the thousands of natural nutrients in whole foods. "Never spend more on supplements than you do on groceries," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a spokesperson for the ADA. "Healthy food does a much better job of meeting your body's wide-ranging nutrient needs for much less money."
Do look for local produce
A health food store can be the next best thing to a farmers' market. Whole Foods, for example, aims to dedicate 20 percent of its produce section to locally grown fruits and veggies. Buying local has its advantages: Because the distance from the farm to your plate is shorter, it's good for the planet (fewer carbon emissions are created in transit), and the food is more nutrient packed than varieties from distant lands. Pennsylvania State University scientists discovered that even when spinach was properly stored, it lost nearly 50 percent of its nutrients in 8 days' time. But aside from nutrition, local produce is simply fresher and tastier, says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of What to Eat. That means you're more likely to eat several servings by day's end rather than tossing out limp, tasteless produce you never touched.
Don't fall for "natural sugar" traps
It's true that "healthy" snack foods don't contain high fructose corn syrup or white sugar, but they can still be loaded with sugars in disguise, such as turbinado, sucanat, and Florida sugar crystals. The latter are derived from sugarcane or beets, the same sources as refined sugars. Nestle points out that these foods are just as high in calories without any added nutrition value. And they can be much more expensive. For example, all-natural Sundrops provide more calories and cholesterol per gram than their classic counterpart, M"M's. An oatmeal-raisin cookie by Alternative Baking Company, Inc., is cholesterol and egg free and made with organic unrefined cane sugar, but it still contains a whopping 480 calories and 18 g of fat. Instead, buy cookies sweetened with fruit juice that are lower in fat, such as Fabe's brand, which have 90 calories and only 4 g of fat per serving (3 very small chocolate chip cookies). Choose oatmeal-raisin or peanut butter varieties for an extra nutrition kick, and if portion control is a problem, buy one fresh bakery cookie instead of a box.
Do gobble up the whole grains
Whole grain products are typically plentiful at these stores, including 100 percent whole grain burger and hot dog buns, crackers, cereals, pitas, and pastas. These selections make it easy to feed your kids whole grain versions of the foods they love, like pizza or mac 'n' cheese. The stores also stock many frozen whole grain items such as waffles, pancakes, pizza crusts, and meals (like Ethnic Gourmet Chicken Biryani over Brown Rice or Amy's Breakfast Burrito made with a whole grain tortilla).
Don't take advice from the clerk
Employees are not required to complete any formal education or training in nutrition science. That means you may know as much as they do about what to eat and why. Even worse, because they aren't health professionals, they could give you advice that harms rather than helps. If you're looking for a registered dietitian for one-on-one advice, find one in your zip code at eatright.org.
Do take in a lesson
Many health and natural food stores schedule specialty classes not typically offered by mainstream markets, such as RD-led nutrition seminars and healthy cooking demos. Check with your local stores.