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Nutrition Diva's Grocery Store Survival Guide
By Monica Reinagel
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Monica Reinagel
All rights reserved.
Shopping the Perimeter
EVERY GROCERY STORE is organized a little bit differently but you'll usually find the least-processed foods arrayed around the edges of the store and most of the processed and packaged foods in the interior aisles. "Shopping the perimeter" is a good strategy for loading up your cart with the healthiest foods. It also simplifies things a bit. After all, most of these foods have just one ingredient listed on the label or no label at all. Nonetheless, there are a still a lot of factors to weigh and a lot of decisions to make as you choose what actually goes in your cart.
Most grocery stores are set up so that fresh produce is the first thing you encounter as you walk in the door. Of course, that means that your peaches and other bruiseable goods inevitably end up on the bottom of the cart, crushed underneath a forty-pound bag of dog food. On the other hand, starting with the fresh fruits and vegetables presents an opportunity: The more you pile into your cart here, the less room there will be for all of those treacherous items over in the snack food aisle. Unfortunately, most people tend to under-shop in the produce department. They toss a head of lettuce, a stalk of broccoli, and a bag of carrots into the cart and move on. But hang on a minute: We're supposed to be eating five servings of veggies a day. If you're shopping for two people and you go to the store twice a week, then you should have something like thirty-five servings of veggies in your cart! Of course, you probably eat some percentage of your meals on the road. But you get my point.
As a general rule, vegetables should take up at least a third (or even half) of the real estate on your plate. Logically, this means that veggies should take up at least a third of your grocery cart.
Why Is Produce So Expensive?
Although fresh fruits and vegetables are the most nutritious items you'll find in the grocery store, they are also some of the most expensive. Or at least they seem expensive. But are they really as costly as we think? I've noticed that many people (myself included) seem to have a double standard when it comes to these things. Those gorgeous red bell peppers, for example, seem kind of expensive at $1.50 each. And yet we think nothing of tossing a three-dollar bag of potato chips into the cart. The cost per serving works out to be about the same. But the chips contribute virtually nothing to your diet except unhealthy fats, sodium, and empty calories. A single red pepper, on the other hand, provides more than a day's worth of vitamins A and C, and a decent amount of fiber, folate, and vitamin E. Talk about a good return on your investment!
If produce still seems expensive, just remember that eating more vegetables lowers your risk of disease and can reduce your health-care expenses in the future. Finally, remember that veggies should take up about a third of your grocery cart — so it's okay if they take up a third of your grocery bill as well.
The Best Choices in Produce
Certain fruits and vegetables have a reputation for being extra nutritious. They're either particularly good sources of certain nutrients, or they've been found to contain uniquely beneficial compounds. Kale is an excellent source of calcium, for example, and grapes are rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant that is thought to protect your heart. The pigments that make plants green, orange, or purple seem to be particularly beneficial to humans, which is why there is often a lot of emphasis on colorful fruits and vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, and berries. But there's also plenty of nutrition in foods like white mushrooms, cauliflower, garlic, and onions.
There are a few nutritional slackers in the produce section as well. Just-picked corn on the cob or freshly dug new potatoes are among the short-lived joys of summer. But on the whole, starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes are on the low end of the nutritional spectrum. In the table below, you'll find some of the most nutritious fruits and vegetable choices. But don't hesitate to play the field. Because the various families of plants have such different nutrient profiles, I think you get more benefit from eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables than you do from eating the same one or two "super-foods" day after day. When shopping for vegetables, try to include at least one thing from each of the following groups:
GREEN — (lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, beet and mustard greens, etc.)
RED/ORANGE — (tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash,red peppers)
CRUCIFEROUS — (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts)
PODS — (peas, green beans, snowpeas, etc.)
STINKERS — (onions, scallions, shallots, garlic)
Getting the Most for Your Money
Another way to get the most nutrition for your money is to look for produce that's in season and grown close to where you live. Local, seasonal produce generally spends less time in transit and storage, where nutrients can fade. Keeping it local also keeps costs down, because you're paying for less fuel. If you garden or go to farmer's markets, you've probably got a good idea what grows at various times of the year in your area. If you don't, you may have no idea whether asparagus is a spring or fall vegetable. See "What's in Season?" for a quick guide to what's in season when.
Are Organic Vegetables Worth the Money?
If you're on a budget, you may be wondering whether it's worth paying a premium for organic produce, which is grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. To be honest, if it were only about nutrient content, I think I'd have a hard time making the case that organics are worth the extra money. By and large, you get just as many vitamins and minerals from conventional produce as you do from organics. (See "Is Organic Produce More Nutritious?".)
The case for organics has more to do with what's not in them. Conventionally grown products can contain pesticide and herbicide residues — toxic chemicals that accumulate in the body over time. Agricultural chemicals also end up in the water supply, where you may be exposed to them even if you don't eat conventional produce. Exposure to these chemicals may contribute to cancer risk (especially in children) and reproductive problems, such as infertility and miscarriages.
Because organic fruits and vegetables are grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they reduce the chemical burden on the environment, wildlife, and consumers like you. Whenever the organic option is even close to the same cost as conventional, choose organic! Not only does it keep harmful chemicals out of your body but it helps keep them out of the environment — which helps everyone.
When organic options are either not available or are too expensive, you can still minimize your exposure to pesticides by knowing which fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide residues. Of commonly eaten fruits and vegetables, these twelve foods have the highest pesticide residues: peaches, bell peppers, nectarines, cherries, grapes (imported), lettuce, apples, celery, strawberries, pears, spinach, and potatoes.
According to analysis done by the Environmental Working Group, avoiding the so-called dirty dozen can reduce your pesticide exposure by 90 percent. This list can help you decide when it might be worth it to either pay the organic premium or choose something else instead. If you or your kids eat an apple every day, for example, you might want to consider buying organic apples or substituting a conventionally grown fruit with lower chemical residues, such as oranges. The EWG has a nifty wallet guide that you can print out and take with you to remind you which foods are on the Dirty Dozen list. You'll find it on their Web site at http://foodnews.org.
I think it's worth doing what you can to reduce exposure to pesticides — especially in young kids. (Experts estimate that 50 percent of our lifetime exposure to pesticides occurs before we are five years old!) Ultimately, however, you need to keep the relative risks in perspective. Epidemiologists believe that healthier diet and lifestyle habits — such as eating more fresh fruits and vegetables — could prevent one-third to one-half of all cancer cases, despite the fact that this might increase exposure to pesticide residues.
Peeling foods like apples, peaches, and potatoes will also remove some of the pesticide residue, but at the cost of some nutrients. Washing produce thoroughly in a solution of equal parts white vinegar and water can also help reduce pesticide residues. It also removes dirt and bacteria — which is why organic produce should be washed the same way.
Let's Take A Closer Look
Is Organic Produce More Nutritious?
Because we place such a high value these days on doing things naturally, we expect that organic vegetables should be more nutritious than nonorganic ones. In fact, the research has shown mixed results. Some studies have found higher levels of nutrients in organic vegetables; others have found that organic produce was no more nutritious than regular vegetables. A few even found that conventional produce had more nutrients. In a review of 162 different studies on the nutritional content of organic versus conventional produce, British researchers recently concluded that that organics are, on average, no more nutritious than regular vegetables.
Because nutrients begin to fade as soon as produce is picked, how fresh the produce is has a much bigger impact on the nutritional content than whether it was conventionally or organically grown. A conventionally raised tomato that you buy at a roadside stand the day after it is picked is almost certain to contain more nutrients than an organically raised tomato that was picked two weeks ago and shipped to your grocery store from another continent.
Don't Forget the Fresh Herbs
Like virtually all leafy green plants, herbs are quite nutritious. But ounce for ounce, fresh herbs like oregano, rosemary, parsley, and basil are among the most nutritious greens you can find. Compared with the same amount of lettuce, raw parsley gives you three times as much vitamin A, four times as much calcium, five times as much iron, seventeen times as much vitamin K, and forty-four times as much vitamin C. Similarly, the total antioxidant capacity of fresh oregano is eight times higher than spinach. Herbs are also very rich in a wide range of disease-fighting phytochemicals. Of course, we tend to eat lettuce and spinach by the handful and parsley and oregano by the pinch, so it's not exactly a fair comparison. But you get the idea. Herbs are a very concentrated source of both flavor and nutrition. In both respects, a little goes a long way so don't leave the produce aisle before putting some fresh herbs in your cart.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
When fresh, local produce is limited or pricey, frozen fruits and vegetables can be nutritious and budget-friendly alternatives. Some nutrients are lost in processing, of course. But because they are harvested at their nutritional peak and processed immediately — often right next to the fields, frozen vegetables can actually be more nutritious than fresh produce that travels halfway around the world to your local grocery store. Frozen berries, broccoli, green beans, and winter squash are all nutritious choices that freeze well.
What's The Game Plan?
Your Shopping Game Plan for Produce
Buy enough. The goal is to eat about two-and-a-half cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit every day. To be sure you're sufficiently stocked, do a quick calculation of the number of people you're shopping for, the number of days until your next shopping trip, and the number of meals you'll be preparing at home (don't forget about lunches and snacks you'll be taking to school and work).
Choose some that you can eat raw. Some nutrients, such as vitamin C, are lost when you cook vegetables. Others, such as lycopene, are made more available. To get the best of both, buy some vegetables to cook (beans, broccoli, squash, and greens) and some to eat raw (salad greens, crudites).
Include some things that carry well. Having portable options like apples, oranges, bananas, baby carrots, snow peas, and radishes makes it easier to grab fruits and vegetables for healthier snacks and to toss them into lunches.
Think shelf-life. Some produce keeps better than others. Berries, ripe melons or peaches, fresh herbs, and delicate lettuces may keep only a day or two. Apples, citrus fruit, kale, winter squash, and green beans will keep much longer. If it will be several days before you will be shopping again, make sure at least some of the produce you buy is more durable — and plan to consume the short-lived stuff first.
Plan meals on the fly. Choose your produce based on whatever's freshest, most inviting, and a good value. But as you make your selections, consider what you might serve with each item and whether you need to add any additional items for those meals or recipes. For example, is fennel on sale this week? Fennel makes the perfect accompaniment for grilled or baked fish. So, grab some fresh lemons before you leave the produce section and make a mental note to stop by the fish counter. (Or, if you're as easily distracted as I am at the grocery store, make an actual note on your shopping list!)
The Dairy Case
When you get to the dairy section, the first decision you need to make is whether to eat dairy at all. Dairy products are a major source of vitamin D in the American diet — which is ironic, because dairy products contain very little vitamin D naturally. Milk and other dairy products are fortified with vitamin D in order to help prevent deficiency. They are also good sources of absorbable calcium and high-quality protein.
If you are allergic to dairy, are lactose intolerant, don't care for it, or don't consume animal products, you can get vitamin D, calcium, and protein from other sources. Nondairy alternatives, such as soy and rice milk, are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Canned fish, such as sardines and salmon, are naturally rich in protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Vegetables like broccoli and dark leafy greens are also good sources of calcium, and your body makes vitamin D when your skin is exposed to natural sunlight.
Are Dairy Products Bad for You?
Clearly, dairy is not essential to a healthy diet. But there are many who claim that dairy products are actually bad for you. I think most of these charges are exaggerated. If you don't like dairy or don't want to eat it, that's fine. If, on the other hand, you enjoy dairy but are nervous about things you've heard, perhaps I can set your mind at ease.
DOES DAIRY CAUSE CANCER? — The China Study by Colin Campbell has convinced many people that dairy products cause cancer, particularly breast cancer. Although the book is very compelling, the actual evidence is a little skimpy. Campbell bases his case on a single study that found low rates of breast cancer in a rural Chinese population that ate very little dairy, plus laboratory studies on rats and cells in petri dishes. However, dozens of more recent human studies in the United States and Europe have found absolutely no link between dairy consumption and breast cancer (or other cancers). In fact, several studies found that women who consumed more dairy had a slightly lower incidence of breast cancer.
DOES DAIRY CAUSE OSTEOPOROSIS? — Similarly, many folks like to point out that nations with the highest dairy consumptions have the highest rates of osteoporosis. This, however, does not remotely prove that eating dairy products causes osteoporosis. As statistics students repeatedly have drummed into their heads: correlation is not causation! My dog always seems to be standing right next to me whenever I drop cheese on the floor. However, the dog's presence does not cause me to drop cheese (unless I'm just being a softie). Many factors contribute to osteoporosis: inadequate intake of protein, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals; excessive intake of protein, sodium, or phosphates; as well as nondietary factors like exercise, genetics, age, and smoking. Dairy products provide vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium, are low in sodium and phosphates, and are neutral in terms of the rest. In other words, high dairy intake is the least likely explanation for high osteoporosis rates.
Excerpted from Nutrition Diva's Grocery Store Survival Guide by Monica Reinagel. Copyright © 2011 Monica Reinagel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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