Here’s How To Beat The System

Grocery shopping seems like it should be easy, right? Make a list, check it twice, get nothing naughty—just lean proteins, veggies and maybe some brown rice. In reality, however, most of us rush through the store in sweaty workout clothes, grabbing toilet paper and coffee and whatever else catches our eye. Next time we’ll have a list and be more prepared, we think.

Unfortunately, it’s those quick trips that do us the most harm. Once we walk into a grocery store, in-store marketing, specials and samples barrage us. There are enticing end-caps of fruit pies and an entire section that smells like cake, and well, it just goes downhill from there.

How can we avoid the pitfalls of the grocery store, stick to a realistic budget, and still eat healthful, nutritious food? We posed this question to Alison Duffey a registered dietician and owner of Healthy for Life Nutrition Consulting LLC in Naples. She walked us through our local grocery store and pointed out dozens of spots where even smart, healthy shoppers could make simple nutrition mistakes. Click through the slides to check out her smart shopping list.

Rule One: Come Prepared
“I think the most important thing is to have a list,” Duffey said. Your best bet is to plan your meals for the week and then arrange your list via the sections of the store you need to visit. That will keep you from wandering aimlessly. And don’t go on an empty stomach, either.  “The worst thing to do is to shop hungry and on the fly,” said Duffey. “If I’m hungry, I grab cheese and crackers and wine and that’s my night.” Duffey points out that when she plans and prepares, and shops with a list, she can make one night of preparation stretch into other nights of meals, saving both time and money.

Better yet, research backs up her wine-and-cheese anecdote. A national survey published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine reported that individuals who engaged in physical exercise or meal planning were two times more likely to report weight loss than those who engaged in other weight loss and weight management activities.

Rule Two: Pick Your Produce With Care
If you have access to a farmers’ market or roadside stand, head there for your produce. You have a better chance of finding locally grown produce, which tends to contain more nutrients. Studies have shown that fresh fruits and veggies lose their nutritional punch the longer they sit—generally local produce is fresher than items that have been flown halfway across the globe. Better yet, you can often load up on fruits and veggies for less, which helps keep you on budget. But not every farmer’s market has only local produce: non-local produce has been known to turn up in area markets. Your best bet is to ask the seller where an item is from—if they don’t seem to know, don’t buy it. After a while, you’ll get to know which vendors are selling local and which aren’t.

It’s best if you can buy fruits and vegetables at their peak. However, with so much imported produce available year-round, sometimes it’s hard to know what’s actually in season when. Luckily, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services provides monthly shopping lists that specify which fruits and vegetables are in season. These lists are available as a printable shopping list at

Rule Three: The Perimeter Isn’t A Totally Safe Space
It’s no secret that the freshest food is found along the outside of the grocery store. However, there are still things to avoid.

For instance, Duffey stopped us in the dairy section—technically on the perimeter—and picked up a low-calorie yogurt. As Duffey read the label, she commented, “One hundred calories. Is this the worst thing you can put in your body? No. But it also depends on if you want to do the artificial sweeteners. My thinking is clinically and chemically, what they say is artificial sweeteners break down in the body to natural components and are flushed out of the body naturally. And they have their place…people who need lower sugar diets. But if you are trying to eat more healthfully, do you want to get there by putting more chemicals in your body?” The lesson here: While the perimeter is where you can find fresh options, be sure to read labels.

Rule Four: Don’t Be Fooled By Shiny Packaging
“Packaging isn’t something they just put on there,” Duffey explained. “There are people whose job is to make the most attractive packaging that people are going to go right to.” Package design is based on what will grab your attention—not how nutritious something is. The good news is that ingredient labels are changing. The FDA has proposed a new design with larger, bolder fonts for calorie counts, a more accurate serving size, and a separate line for added sugars.

And do not be confused by buzzwords—or tricked into thinking that a buzzword makes something healthy. “Be wary of your sources,” says Duffey. She uses vegetable chips as an example. The chips may state on the package that they equal a serving of vegetables, but the truth is, you are getting more nutritional value from an actual serving of vegetables than you are from a chip. “If it has more than five ingredients, or your grandmother can not pronounce it, beware.” Finally, while reading the ingredients, keep in mind that they are listed by weight. Whatever is listed first makes up the majority of the product.

Finally, it’s important to note that children in particular can be tricked by packaging. A study published in 2012 in the Canadian Journal of Public Health evaluated the responses of children to different parts of packaging including color, images of cartoon spokes-characters, and package claims. Researchers found that all the children—even children in the fifth and sixth grades–struggled to identify the healthy foods.

Rule Five: Watch Where You’re Pulling Items From
The cereal aisle is an excellent example of the importance of product placement. Duffey pointed out that the sugar-filled cereals were all placed low—at a child’s eye level. “That’s a very common, well-known marketing tool,” she said. Meanwhile, dry beans, rice, and bulk items such as lentils and raw nuts are often buried or hidden on top or bottom shelves.

While you’re shopping, if a product grabs your eye, before placing it in your cart check the calorie count, serving size, and the fiber. Checking the label will help you get in the habit of smarter shopping. And if something does catch your eye, look around and check the shelves above and below it for more options, and possibly even healthier options.

Rule Six: Grab a Cart, Even If You’re Just Getting A Few Things
A basket seems smarter; since you can fit less stuff in it, so you’re less likely to buy more than you need, right? Wrong. A 2011 study in the Journal of Market Research found that shoppers tend to go more for instant gratification items when we hold a basket in our dominant arm. It’s a principal called “embodied cognition,” and it means that we often make subconscious decisions based solely on the sensations in our body. When your arms are extended—like when you’re pushing a shopping cart—you’re much less likely to reach for those impulse buys.

This Store Will Teach You How To Shop
One store making a difference locally is Ada’s Natural Market, which is specially designed to help shoppers make healthy choices. Matthew Hoover, an event specialist and part of Ada’s management team, explained: “What we were hoping to do was guide the customer through the store…helping them make the healthiest choices possible.” Major national brands are missing from their store. “We don’t carry a lot of conventional brands. Everything we do have, for example, in soda, is made with Stevia,” explained Hoover. The store also offers various classes and lectures and several times a month a nutrition expert guides a group of 15 people through the store, teaching them how to read labels and make smarter choices. More information can be found on its website: