Caution: Landmines in the Grocery Store Ahead

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

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."

Talk to the butcher or meat counter person at the grocery store. They're often happy to trim excess fat or recommend cuts with the most marbling.

Seafood Tank

Fish such as salmon, tuna, and sea bass are tops picks, says Platzman. They're filled with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 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. Research shows a twice-a-week fish meal may decrease your heart disease risk and lower bad cholesterol.

But since dangerous mercury levels have been detected in large specimens at the top of the food chain, limit shark, swordfish, and king mackerel to no more than one serving per week.


Go for reduced-fat or skim milk, and the fat-free version of any flavored coffee creamers to cut calories and fat. Low-fat yogurts or those made with non-caloric sweeteners, such as saccharin or NutraSweet, are the best bets at the grocery store.

Research shows that eating three servings of milk, cheese, or yogurt each day might help you burn more fat. If you're buying into enhanced or "smart" yogurts designed for women or children because they provide extra calcium, folic acid, or other supplements, weigh the additional cost involved. You're likely getting those minerals in other areas of your diet, says Moore. It may not be necessary to spend extra -- unless you simply prefer the taste.


Buying bottled water at the grocery store is fine, but spending money on "enhanced," highly purified, or flavored water is not necessary. "When exercising, especially heavy cardio, or if it's extremely hot outside, the specialty waters are worth something as they provide electrolytes. But under normal conditions, most people do not need the extra ingredients, and in fact, many add unnecessary calories," says Platzman. As for "molecularly purified water," there's no evidence yet that these waters hydrate better or have any affect on athletic performance. If you simply don't like plain water and prefer it infused with flavors, such as raspberry or citrus, it's fine to drink flavored water. Just check that you're not downing hidden calories, since water should be a zero-calorie drink.

Frozen Convenience Foods

Frozen convenience items in the grocery store often have skyrocketing sodium counts. "Avoid products with more than 700 milligrams of sodium per serving and 20 grams of fat per serving," says Moore. Look for meals packaged as healthy, low-fat, or for the weight conscious -- they often tout higher fiber and less sodium, fat, and calorie counts, plus come in every variety from meatloaf to pasta primavera. Go for plain cheese or veggie-topped frozen pizzas rather than high-fat meat versions. Graze the nutrition label to be sure you're getting the healthiest choice.


The latest marketing ploy in the chip aisle is "smart" stickers on select baked varieties. But they can be misleading. While baked is better than fried when it comes to most things -- even snacks -- that doesn't necessarily mean baked chips are a nutritional windfall. They still contain calories, and portion control still matters. Don't let the stickers give you a false sense of being virtuous. This is, after all, the junk-food aisle. Check the label for specifics and compare brands at the grocery store.

Another nutritional trap in the snack aisle: granola bars. Look for a bar with less than 3 grams of fat and less than 10 grams of sugar per serving, Platzman tells WebMD. Scan ingredients and look for whole grains, fruits, and nuts at the top of the list rather than enriched white flour, fructose syrup, candy, chocolate, or peanuts, which can turn these bars into glorified candy.

Finally, resist temptation. Often, people make healthy choices throughout the grocery store only to be confronted with rows of candy bars and mini chip bags at the checkout counter. If you're tempted by those high-calorie treats, look for a candy-free lane, or pick up a magazine and flip through it while you're waiting.

SOURCES: Zemel, M. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2002; vol 288: pp 3130. Obesity Research, 2004; vol 12: pp 582-590. "Calcium and Dairy Acceleration of Weight and Fat Loss during Energy Restriction in Obese Adults," Circulation, 2003; vol 108: pp 820. Andrea Platzman, RD, American Dietetic Association, New York City. Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director, nutrition therapy, The Cleveland Clinic Foundation; and spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

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