Supermarket Shopping: Decisions and Dilemmas

author : Nancy Clark
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Should I buy organic or standard foods? Fresh or frozen vegetables? Low-fat or fat-free milk? Get tips inside.

by Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD

Question: How many food decisions does the average person make in a day: 25, 80, 100, or 200?

According to Bonnie Taub-Dix RD, weight loss specialist in New York and author of Read it Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time, the answer is 200 food decisions a day. No wonder grocery shopping can be mind-boggling and a source of overwhelming confusion!

Time and again, my clients wistfully comment, “Nancy, I wish I could take you food shopping with me.” They are confused about which foods to buy so they can eat healthfully. They wonder if they should buy organic or standard foods? Fresh or frozen vegetables? Low-fat or fat-free milk? Their list of questions seems endless.

While I can answer their questions about food shopping, Taub-Dix’s newly released book can guide everyone through the grocery store. Read it Before You Eat It is a handy resource for hungry athletes. Here are just a few tidbits that I gleaned from this easy-reader.

• Supermarkets are set up in the way they want you to shop, which means lots of unplanned purchases. That's why loaves of freshly baked bread or pretty flowers greet you as you enter the store. Be sure you have a plan (and your guard up) when you enter! Sixty to seventy percent of what ends up in a shopping cart tends to be unplanned.

• Beware of descriptive labels such as freshly baked, homemade, natural, and wholesome. These words make products appear more attractive so they jump into your food cart. The same holds true with menus: Succulent Italian Seafood Fillet sells more than Fish of the Day.

• Don't be tempted by “fat-free.” When food manufacturers take out the fat, they generally add extra sugar. You'll end up with a similar amount of calories, and sometimes even more. A smaller portion of the “real food” can create a better taste-memory than a larger portion of a substitute that is low in taste.

• Your goal should not be to eliminate dietary fat; you need some fat to absorb certain vitamins, provide fuel for endurance exercise, and contribute a nice taste and texture to foods. Rather, strive to enjoy more mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, while staying away from trans fats, listed on the label as “partially hydrogenated oils.”  Even if the label says “0 grams trans fat”, it might contain 0.5 grams or less, so the better bet is to read the ingredient list on the label and nix foods with “partially hydrogenated oils.”

• The “serving size” listed on a food label may not be the appropriate portion for your body. Most athletes need at least two servings of cereal to create the foundation for an adequate breakfast. That is, you are not being piggy if you eat two packets (two servings) of oatmeal. You might even need three.

• The recommended fiber intake is about 25 to 35 grams per day. Most people fail to reach that goal. Yet, some health-conscious athletes consume far more fiber than that—and complain about undesired pit stops during exercise. Moderation tends to be a wise path.

• Not all foods have labels with protein information. Case in point: deli-meats. That makes it hard to count grams of protein. The alternative is to use weight. An ounce of cooked meat, such as deli roast beef or turkey breast, has about 7 grams of protein. If you use 4 ounces sliced turkey in a sandwich, you will consume about 28 grams of protein. That's about half the daily protein needs of an active woman, and about one-third of the amount needed by an active male.

• Fresh produce may not have a label, but it will have a “Country of Origin” sticker. If you start reading the little stickers, you'll notice that grapes might come from Chile, the bananas from Ecuador, the peppers from Canada. The United Nations of food has gathered in your market's produce stand! While world-wide imports offer us more variety, they also contribute to a significant carbon footprint. Buying locally grown produce is a nice way to support your local farmers and protect the neighboring farmlands.

• Concerned about that long list of food additives that you cannot pronounce? Food additives are carefully regulated and subject to ongoing safety reviews. The consumer advocate group Center for Science in the Public Interest suggests we “avoid sodium nitrate, saccharin, caffeine, olestra, acesulfame-K, and artificial coloring” not only because they are questionable additives but also because they are used primarily in processed foods with low nutritional value. You won't go wrong eating more unprocessed or lightly processed foods (such as oatmeal instead of Froot Loops).

• “Best if used by” dates are related to freshness and best quality, not safety. Eating the food after that expiration date won't hurt you but there might be some loss of flavor or quality. Canned tomatoes, pineapple and other high-acid foods can last for 12 to 18 months on the shelf. Canned meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and low acid foods can last for two to five years if the can has been stored in a cool, dry place. Yet, “when in doubt, throw it out.”

• What exactly does “organic” mean on a food label? The official international definition is: “Organic foods have been produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or synthetic fertilizers, and cannot be genetically modified or radiated. Organic poultry, dairy, meat, and eggs are produced without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics, and are humanely raised and slaughtered.”

This definition may not reflect the nutritional value of a food; in some cases organic food is not nutritionally superior to standard food. And take note: organic chips are still chips that are loaded with fat, sodium, and calories! Organic also doesn’t mean that the food is locally grown. Does organic food from China offer any real benefit to the environment?

Yikes ... I’ve only read to page 55 and have run out of space for this column! I guess you’ll have to read the remaining 200 pages of Read It Before You Eat It to learn more about the whats and whys of food shopping so you can make food decisions based on facts, not fear.


Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes in her practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and Food Guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players are available at
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date: January 20, 2011

Nancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

avatarNancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

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