Caution: Landmines in the Grocery Store Ahead

Knowing what is what in your grocery cart can save you fat, calories, and even money

By Jed Nitzberg
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario,MD

Do you know what you're really putting into your cart at the grocery store? Need to lighten the fat, calorie, or carb load in your buggy? Are foods really "smart?" WebMD takes a closer look.

Grocery stores have come along way -- new high-tech computer cart buddies are being tested in some markets that do everything from order your deli items while you shop to keep a running tab of the foods in your buggy. While grocery stores increasingly improve their design, variety, and layout, making a trek to the market is still fraught with nutritional landmines.

One problem is many foods in the grocery store may be marketed as healthy but contain hidden fat, calories, and sodium when you look closely. Worse, foods are now labeled "smart" or "enhanced," yet we have no guidelines for what those terms actually mean.

The food industry is hoping to develop this new niche and create demand for these products -- for which they'll likely charge a premium price. In reality, functional foods are broadly defined as those that claim, or at least hint at, enhanced health benefits such as juice drinks fortified with herbs like echinacea, which is said to enhance immunity, and ginseng, believed to boost energy.

Federal regulations for supplements don't require studies to back their products' label claims, which may imply health benefits. But foods that carry specific health assurances, such as disease prevention, are a different matter. These require testing and approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Quaker Oats was the first functional food to get the green light with claims it can lower the risk of heart disease. Today, dozens of others are cropping up or seeking approval.

How do you know what to put in your grocery store cart and what to leave on the shelf? Here are a few tips:

  • Plan ahead. A list is still your No. 1 tool to stay on target. Commit to buying what you need and don't give in to additional temptations along the way.
  • Eat before you shop. Shopping after a hard day's work when you're exhausted and starving may not make for good grocery shopping decisions.
  • Surf the perimeter first, says Andrea Platzman, RD, a New York City-based American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. "This is where the freshest and most nutritious food items are located." Once your cart is loaded with fewer processed, more natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and meats, then head to the interior aisles.
  • Look beyond eye level. Often the low-fat, low-carb, or reduced-calorie items are placed on high or low shelving in the grocery store rather than at eye level. Beware, the end aisle displays are designed to attract your attention but often contain less healthy foods, such as cookies, candies, and soft drinks.
  • Learn the label lingo. Check ingredients; contents are listed in order of quantity. Scan the Nutrition Facts panel for calories, fat grams, sodium, and fiber content and choose brands that pack fewer calories, sodium or fat, and more fiber.

What to Choose in Each Section


Avoid prepared tuna and chicken salads, which generally contain full-fat mayonnaise. Steer clear of macaroni and potato salads for the same reason. If you're looking for ready-to-eat convenience, try the rotisserie chicken and a green salad that doesn't come with dressing on it. For sandwiches, choose lean roasted meats, such as turkey or roast beef. Avoid lunchmeats with visible fat in them such as salami. Remember also that many of the deli meats contain high amounts of salts. Look for part-skim cheeses.


In sliced bread, the wording is important. It can't just say "wheat." It should say whole wheat, whole grain, or oat bran, says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director of nutrition therapy at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation and an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. Check the label for fiber. Some brands have a whopping 4 grams per slice, but 2 or 3 grams is the norm. It is recommended that adults should consume about 20 - 35 grams of dietary fiber per day from a variety of sources.

If your brand has just 1 gram -- look closer at the label, it's likely not fiber-filled whole wheat. For other fiber-rich baked goods, choose 100% whole-wheat flat breads, wraps, and tortillas.

Meat Counter

"Filet Mignon or more expensive cuts of beef are usually leaner choices," says Moore. Lamb and pork chops or any beef (such as rump roast) that needs to be slow cooked is generally leaner, too. Ham, sausage, bacon, and short ribs are all meats higher in fat. Chicken and turkey are great options but remember, prep method still matters. Frying or sauteing in butter will add calories and fat, as will eating the skin.

"Men who ate fish at least once per month had less incidence of strokes caused by clogged arteries than those who ate fish less often."