The Spring

Guide to Healthy Grocery Shopping

Set yourself up for success when it comes to meal planning, grocery shopping and building out your pantry with healthy foods
By Ali Wiser

By Ali Wiser

Owner & Practitioner, The Spring

Grocery shopping can be a daunting or overwhelming experience for some, especially when you’re rebuilding your diet to best support your health goals. Stocking your kitchen with nutritious foods will help encourage better eating habits, for you and for the entire family. But where to start? How to get in and out of the grocery store efficiently and avoid repeat trips? What foods are actually healthy for me? These are all questions we get from clients everyday at The Spring. Proper nutrition is vital to improving your health, and it all starts at the grocery store.

We won’t share specific food recommendations here—there’s no one size fits all approach for food and diet. We encourage you to work directly with your practitioner at The Spring to determine which foods will best support your plan, and which to avoid. Here are our top general tips and tricks though to navigate the grocery store and fill your cart with healthy and healing whole foods:

Make a plan, write a list

The first step to better grocery shopping is to make a plan. Pick out your recipes for the week in advance and make a list of all the ingredients you need, plus any other pantry staples and (healthy) snacks. With a little bit of pre-work and planning, you’ll be better prepared to make good choices. And never go grocery shopping hungry. Studies have shown that when shoppers go to the store hungry and without a list, they’re more likely to select more junk foods and more likely to spend more money in general—even on non-food items. So make sure to have a quick snack before you get started.

Don’t panic, go organic

When it comes to simple whole foods like fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat, we recommend clients purchase organic whenever possible. Conventional foods are typically grown in chemically fertilized soil and are commonly sprayed with pesticides in an effort to protect crops against insects, weeds, fungi and other pests. When we eat non-organic foods, trace amounts of these pesticides enter our bodies and, “…can damage the brain and nervous system. And even low levels have been linked to cancer, reproductive issues, and other health problems,” said Devon Payne-Sturges, DrPH, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in College Park in a recent article from Consumer Reports. Organic-labeled foods, by contrast, have strict standards, including rules against harmful synthetic pesticides.

It’s true that buying organic can often be more expensive, but if you go in with a plan and a budget you can avoid overspending. Consumer Reports has a great resource on how to efficiently shop organic. We also recommend shopping for produce when it’s in season as it will likely bit a bit more affordable while also tasting better and offering more nutritional value. As an added benefit, organic foods are better for the planet as well, as organic farming tends to be better for the environment by supporting healthy soil and water conservation.

A few additional things to watch out for though when it comes to shopping for organic foods. First, it should be noted that “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable. According the Mayo Clinic, “usually, ‘natural’ on a food label means that the product has no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. ‘Natural’ on a label doesn’t have to do with the methods or materials used to grow the food ingredients.” Second, “pesticide-free” as a food label or marketing term is unregulated, so always look for organic. Third, food labeled “organic” does not guarantee a food is nutritious or healthy. Kraft sells organic Mac and Cheese, for example. We’ll get into processed foods later, but just note that the organic label only represents the agricultural or farm practices of the original ingredients.

Dirty Dozen, Clean Fifteen

When organic fruit and vegetable options are unavailable or unaffordable, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a helpful list of the most and least pesticide-contaminated non-organic fresh fruits and vegetables—The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen, respectively.

toxins

While this is helpful guidance on avoiding trace amounts of chemicals and pesticides, conventional foods shouldn’t be cause for panic. Risks of conventional foods are low, and just because something is on the Dirty Dozen list does not mean it should be avoided at all costs. Buy organic whenever possible, and with organic or conventional produce it’s important to wash everything before cooking or consuming. Again, if conventional foods are what is available, they’re better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.

The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists were developed by EWG, not by our team at The Spring. Some of the foods listed on The Clean Fifteen may not be included in your recommended diet protocol. Please consult a member of our team if you have any questions.

processed-foods

Avoid processed foods

Processed foods are just that: processed, or changed from their original form. A broad definition to be fair, frozen chopped kale or a can of green beans in water are technically processed foods, for example. Here though we’re focused on “ultra-processed” foods like cheese puffs, frozen pizza, cereal, and microwaveable dinners, to name a few.

According to a recent NPR story, ultra-processed foods currently make up nearly 60% of what the typical adult eats, and nearly 70% of what kids eat. “Four of the top six killers are related to an inadequate diet, which in the U.S. is probably largely due to convenient, safe, inexpensive food that we eat too much of,” said Christopher Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at Stanford University in the NPR article. High consumption of ultra-processed foods has been linked to health concerns like an increased risk of obesity, hypertension, breast and colorectal cancer, and dying prematurely from all causes. In a study that directly compared minimally processed food diets versus ultra-processed food diets, participants in the latter had noticeably worse health outcomes.

A good rule of thumb is to purchase foods that do not have a list of ingredients—raw kale by the bunch, or raw green beans. If there is a list of ingredients, find a food source with the shortest list and filled with ingredients that you recognize as whole foods and can pronounce.

Keywords for meat and dairy

Similar to humans, if animals are fed foods with toxins or chemical substances their bodies are unable to break down, they will develop health problems. When we consume these sources, we’re putting ourselves at risk for exposure to the same toxins. So, when you’re purchasing meat—we strongly encourage protein at each meal, a serving about the size of your fist is generally recommended—look for these keywords for the highest quality sources: For poultry and eggs, buy organic, pasture-raised; For beef, butter, and dairy, buy organic, grass-fed; and for fish, buy wild caught.

Final quick tips for grocery shopping

  • Stay on the perimeter of the store. Have you noticed, all of the fresh foods (produce, meat, dairy, etc.) are typically placed along the perimeter of the store? Try to buy as few things from the aisles as possible.
  • Buy in bulk to save on costs. Quinoa, buckwheat and raw nuts and seeds are great items to buy in bulk.
  • Give the frozen section a try. Some argue it’s better to purchase organic frozen fruits and vegetables than fresh, especially for foods that are out of season and shipped long-distances because the produce is harvested and then frozen when nutrients are the freshest.
  • Avoid anything that says “light” or “lite” on the label. This typically signals low-fat, which means sugar has been added to replace the lost flavor of the removed fat.
  • Remember, margarine is not food. Replace it with grass-fed butter, ghee, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil or avocado oil.
  • Try something new! To add variety and keep things interesting, add something new to your cart each week. Some ideas: nori sheets, kombucha, sauerkraut or kimchi, a new flavor of organic tea, herbs and spices, or fresh turmeric.
The Spring is a holistic wellness clinic in Austin, TX, offering personalized, integrative care. We consider all aspects of you, your symptoms, and your health history, and offer personalized programs focused on lifestyle, nutrition, and education, incorporating a variety of assessments and therapies: muscle testing, functional lab testing, health coaching, and dietary and supplement recommendations. Make an appointment with us today to visit our wellness center and discuss how we can help you feel your best.

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