Decoding the Supermarket Aisle-by-Aisle
- Cereal- Stick to whole grains, low in sugar, and low calorie counts. Cereal is one of the easiest foods to over-serve yourself with. If you want more than a cup, stick to cereals with about 100-130 calories per 3/4 cup serving. If you want sweet cereal, add fruit and a sprinkling of granola on top– don’t resort to sugary cereal.
- Oatmeal- Don’t buy pre-flavored types– way too much added sugar and preservatives! Opt for plain oatmeal and dress it up yourself with fruit, nut butter, granola, etc.
- Look for it in health food stores: Scottish oats, Kamut, Oat bran
- Waffle & Pancake mixes- whole grain is good, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to make your own batter with a few simple ingredients.
- Look for it in health food stores: Buckwheat or gluten-free pancake mix
- Syrup- Unless it says “100% Maple Syrup,” it has absolutely no maple syrup in it. Yes, I’m serious. Aunt Jemima? Log cabin? Hungry Jack? It’s nothing but high fructose corn syrup with some coloring and extra sugar. Real maple syrup is actually pretty pricey. As an alternative, put a little jam and nut butter on your pancakes and waffles!
- Bagels and English muffins- Again, stick with whole wheat. As for bagels, keep the calories down by getting them “toaster-size.” Thomas makes a 100-calorie English muffin that’s pretty good and has more fiber than the Weight Watchers version.
- Milk- Opt for low-fat or fat free. If you need to add fat into your diet, saturated fat-laden whole milk isn’t the place to get it. If you want a dairy replacement, I’ve found almond milk to be the tastiest. I’m not a fan of soy milk (or soy anything) at all. Here’s why.
- Cheese- Mozzarella and Mexican blends usually have lighter versions that don’t sacrifice taste. I’ve tried fat-free cheddar cheese… and you’re better off without it. Go ahead and indulge in “fancy” cheese every once in a while (goat, brie, bleu, etc.) but use them sparingly– unless you find a lower fat alternative. Non-fat and light cream cheese is great for your toaster-sized bagels!
- Look for it in health food stores- fat free feta (but beware, it doesn’t melt the same as full-fat feta)
- Yogurt- Yogurt can either be the healthiest or crappiest snack you eat during the day. Anything with fruit already in it is likely laden with lots of extra sugar. Opt for non-fat or low-fat plain, vanilla, or Greek yogurt and get creative with your fruit/carb toppings. Go nuts– maybe throw in a few semi-sweet chocolate chips! Whatever you do, stay away from things labeled “light.” They usually contain tummy-bloating fake sugars, and they keep you satisfied for maybe an hour. Not worth it!
- Butter- Go for the real thing. Don’t touch margarine and don’t fall for zero-calorie sprays. Just use the real thing sparingly. Many times when baking, you can even sub in applesauce for the butter. No need to buy the fake stuff.
- Look for it in health food stores- ghee (clarified butter)
- Bread- Whole wheat at the very least. Take a look at the calorie count on the back, too. Some breads are over 100 calories per slice. Some brands are as low as 50 calories, but make sure it’s not at the expense of tummy-filling fiber.
- Look for it in health food stores- Ezekiel or sprouted wheatberry bread
- Pasta- Whole wheat! Soba noodles are also good– they’re made with buckwheat. For a gluten-free option, opt for brown rice pasta. If you want the illusion of pasta without the carbs, try looking up spaghetti squash.
- Rice and cous cous- Brown and whole wheat, respectively.
- Look for it in health food stores- quinoa, millet, amaranth, buckwheat
- Unless you’re going for whole grain crackers that are low in sugar or plain mixed nuts, skip the snack aisle altogether. Prepackaged baked goods are full of artificial dyes (studies have shown some to actually be dangerous), preservatives, and trans fats. Treat yourself by making some oatmeal cookies from scratch. You deserve that much!
- Look for it in health food stores- plain or slightly salted mixed nuts in the bulk section. A small handful makes for a great snack.
- Try to buy whole wheat flour whenever possible.
- Granola- Very tricky. Many brands of granola contain nothing but sugar and chemicals. Even brands like Quaker have dangerous BHT in their products. Kashi is probably one of your best bets. Eat granola sparingly, though. It’s high in sugar and the calories add up quickly.
- Look for it in health food stores- Granola in the bulk section. Again, watch your serving size.
- Sweeteners- Stay away from aspartame and sucralose. Stevia is about as healthy as you’ll get when it comes to calorie-free. Honey and agave both metabolize better in the body than regular sugar. By the way, brown sugar isn’t better than white sugar– it’s only white sugar with molasses added to it. And a little sweetener goes a long way.
- Look for it in health food stores- brown rice syrup
- Most juice is nothing but sugar, a little concentrated flavor, and water. But mostly sugar. Look at the packaging very carefully. Most orange juices, when not concentrated, are pretty safe. They should be drank in 8 oz servings, though. They’re still sugar.
- Coconut water has become my favorite post-workout drink. It has more potassium than a banana and half the calories.
- Please, stay away from soda. If you want a healthy alternative to soda, buy soda water and put some crushed fruit with it– or mix it with some of that orange juice you just bought.
- Mustard, Mayo, Ketchup- Mustard is a great way to spice up a sandwich with little calorie payload. Mayo… not so much. If you’re making a chicken or tuna salad, try using non-fat Greek yogurt instead. Ketchup is okay to use sparingly– but look for the kind with the least amount of sugar.
- Salad dressings- Easiest way to turn a salad from something healthy to something as fatty as a Big Mac. Watch your calories, fat, and sugar very carefully. I really like salad spritzers. Some of the best dressings are actually in the refrigerated section next to the leafy greens. Stay away from “calorie-free” dressings, though.
- Nut butters- Skip the Jif, Skippy, and Peter Pan. They’ve got hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fat (they can legally say something has “no trans fat” even if there are traces of it). Go for all-natural peanut butter, almond butter, etc. There really should only be one ingredient in the nut butter you buy: the nuts.
- Jelly/Jam/Preserves- Skip the jelly, go with preserves. There’s less chemicals and sometimes less sugar. I usually go for the one with the least amount of sugar per tablespoon serving.
- Oils- Olive and canola oils are great to start out with. They’re good sources of unsaturated fat. Stay away from vegetable, palm, and coconut oil– they’re full of saturated fat.
- Vinegars- I can’t say enough good things about balsamic vinegar. It’s great to pan-cook or oven-roast vegetables with and makes a really good salad dressing. You can even find fruit-infused varieties that don’t add much sugar. Malt vinegar is a good dip for oven-baked fries and baked breaded fish (‘Ello, fish and chips!).
- Dips- Salsa and some bean dips are safe, but most of these are busts. Try hummus! Olive tapenades are also delish.
- If you’re going to buy anything organic, make it meat. It should be free-range, antibiotic free, and hormone free. The happier the animal (you know, before they killed it), the better the meat.
- Fish- Make fish your friend. Even fatty fish like salmon are great for you. Be careful with mercury, though. Some fish known to be high in mercury are tuna, mackerel, swordfish, halibut, and grouper.
- Shellfish- Also great low-fat sources of protein. Scallops, crab and lobster (minus the butter dip!), and shrimp are delicious. Seared scallops are easy to make, look fancy, and taste delicious.
- Poultry- Your next lowest fat protein source. I think I eat chicken 4 days a week. At least.
- Tip: Make your chicken cutlets last longer by putting them in individual serving baggies and sticking them in the freezer.
- Red meat- Eat it sparingly, but don’t be afraid of it. Look for leaner cuts of beef, such as NY strip, top sirloin, flank steak, and filet.
- Processed meat- This includes bacon, bologna, sausage, and salami. Beware. Processed meats contain harmful nitrates, lots of sodium, and a hefty amount of saturated fat. Your best option is to get organic and uncured bacon (go with uncured turkey bacon for your best option)– it contains no nitrates. You may not be able to find it in a regular grocery store, but it’s worth the trip/extra $$.
- Canned vegetables- Not my favorite way to buy veggies, but canned sting beans are better than no string beans.
- Canned fruit- A lot of canned fruit is packaged in syrup. Syrup is nothing but sugar. Fruit, if you buy it organic and in-season, is sweet enough on its own. An exception to packaged fruit is no-sugar-added applesauce, which is a great snack with a small handful of nuts or with some granola crumbled in.
- Canned soup- Watch your sodium content, make sure it’s not a cream-based soup, and try to stay as organic and natural as you can get. If you’re getting a tomato-based soup, make sure it comes in a carton and not a can (see below for why).
- Sauces- If it contains tomatoes, it should come in a glass jar. A lot of cans are lined with a synthetic form of estrogen, and the natural acidity in tomatoes can cause some of that lining to get into the sauce.
- Canned Beans- I get a little lazy when it comes to cooking beans, so I almost always buy them in a can. No harm. If you’re going to get baked beans, you should probably find some with the least amount of sugar– and don’t get the pork and beans version. Garbanzo beans and black beans are some of my favorites.
- Dried Beans- They take longer, but they’re worth it. I usually just buy lentils dry, though.
- Fruit and vegetables are also good to buy organic. You’ll taste the difference (and I don’t just mean the lack of pesticides).
- Vegetables- You should aim to get one type of leafy green each time you go to the store. I like spinach best. Romaine and mixed greens are also good. Iceberg lettuce has about as much nutritional value as the plastic tag labeling it. Don’t be afraid to try new veggies! Look up new ways to cook vegetables. Lots are great roasted with just a bit of balsamic vinegar. Challenge yourself and try a new vegetable each week. You should also keep an onion and head of garlic in your pantry at all times– you never know when you’ll need the flavor boost for your food.
- Fruit- Make fruit your new sweet tooth satisfier. Berries and bing cherries have lots of antioxidants and make great toppings for yogurt, oats, and cereal. Apples, grapes, bananas are good on-the-go snacks. And who doesn’t love a juicy orange? And peaches… oh peaches. I could go on, but you get the picture. Fruit = love.
- Starches- Sweet potatoes are full of vitamins and minerals. Regular potatoes are great, too! They both make great baked fries.
- Vegetables- Frozen vegetables are great! They’re often just as nutritious as regular produce (they’re picked when ripe and frozen, rather than being allowed to ripen off the plant/tree/vine), and you don’t have to worry about them going bad. A good place to start would be a bag of frozen spinach, some mixed veggies (a stir fry mix minus the sauce is a good idea).
- Ice Cream- I get it, everyone needs a treat now and then. So stick to frozen yogurt versions (Ben and Jerry’s makes a lot!), sorbet, and lighter versions of ice cream treats– such as those from Breyer’s, Skinny Cow, and Klondike’s Skinny Bear.
- Meals- Good for days when you don’t have time to cook. But watch the sodium and chemicals you’re eating. Kashi and Amy’s make really healthy frozen meals.
- Look for it in health food stores- Really fancy frozen meals!
- Dark chocolate- The higher the cocoa percentage, the better. Aim for 70% or above. I still can’t stomach 100%, but I love the intense, fruity flavor of 70-80% cacao chocolate. A square of dark chocolate for dessert is a sweet, antioxidant-rich way to end a meal.
- Look for it in health food stores- Dark chocolate-covered cacao nibs. They’re pieces of cocoa bean that’s covered in a layer of dark chocolate. They kind of look like chocolate Nerds, and they’re delicious way to top oatmeal, a fruit salad, and anything else that tastes good with chocolate (which is, well, a lot).
- Gum- When your sweet tooth won’t quit, this is one of the best ways to get it to quiet down. When I finish a meal and absolutely have to have something sweet, even when I know it’s not a great idea, I pop a piece of gum in my mouth. Mints work too.
- Candy bars- If you MUST, there are candy bars called Fling that are probably the least bad for you, but it’s best to just avoid them. If temptation becomes overwhelming, distract yourself by buying a magazine. While you’re at it, make it a health magazine. It might inspire you to stay on track.