An Aisle-By-Aisle Guide to Your Health Food Store

Health food stores are booming: 469 new establishments opened between 2005 and 2006, for a total of 35,876 nationwide. Unfortunately, many shoppers believe that everything they sell is healthy—and that the staff is knowledgeable about nutrition. Neither is necessarily true. I should know. I owned a health food store for many years before becoming a registered dietitian (RD).

Back then, my "nutrition smarts" came from popular bestsellers and word-of-mouth advice. Some of the information was valid; a lot wasn't. Today, I'm qualified to help customers safely and healthfully navigate the aisles. Here are the top lessons I wish everyone knew.

Don't be fooled by fat fads

Bad fats are unhealthy by any name. Ghee (clarified butter), promoted as a healing food in Ayurvedic medicine, doesn't deserve a health halo. It contains the same amount of artery-clogging saturated fat as does regular butter and was found to promote cardiovascular disease in four separate studies. Also, beware of artisan cheeses and premium ice creams. They may be gourmet, but they're still high in saturated fat and calories. Stick with liquid vegetable oils, trans-free spreads, and low-fat cheeses, all found in abundance at these stores.

Do stock up in the "dairy" section

It's a dietitian's dream, overflowing with healthy dairy and nondairy selections, which makes it easy to get the bone-building calcium you need. The options are amazing: low-fat, creamy Greek-style yogurt made from sheep's or goat's milk; kefir and other products with friendly bacteria that improve digestive health and boost immunity; plus soy- or rice-based items that are low in saturated fat, says Susan Moores, RD, a Minnesota-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

Don't assume that the hot food bar is healthier

Freshly made doesn't necessarily mean good for you. For example, mashed potatoes prepared with butter, whole milk, and salt, and bakery goods made with eggs, butter, and cream are fresh and unprocessed, but they can be high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium per serving. Organic macaroni and cheese can range upward of 410 calories and 16 g of fat (10 g of which is saturated) per cup.

Load up on healthy salad bar items including marinated vegetable and whole grain salads, olives, and cooked beans. Homemade soups like Tomato and Garden Vegetable, Chicken Noodle, and Carrot Ginger from Wild Oats are all 120 calories or less per cup. On the hot bar, avoid creamy sauces, look for potatoes with skins, and choose dishes with colorful fruits and vegetables as the predominant ingredients, recommends Moores.

Do check out the faux meats

They're one of the few places that carry an extensive variety of "vegetarian meats," including ready-to-eat, high-protein, fiber-rich, cholesterol- and saturated-fat-free lunchmeats, hot dogs, burgers, and sausages. Incorporating more vegetarian proteins into your diet and eating less saturated fat helps reduce the risk of developing heart disease. You can find a meat-free version of just about everything, including pepperoni, bacon, even chorizo. Choosing veggie chorizo saves 7 g of saturated fat, compared with the real thing, and adds 6 g of fiber for double the portion.
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