Grocery Shopping to Optimize Nutrition

Grocery Shopping to Optimize Nutrition

Grocery Shopping for Healthy Foods

You want to shop healthy, but that trip to the grocery store can be daunting. With so many choices and misleading advertising, it’s hard to know what to put in your cart.

The USDA’s main goal is to decrease obesity in America — and with it, the risks of obesity-related illnesses, including:

There’s a lot to chew on in the 95-page guidelines, but two overarching themes emerge:

  1. Increasing the "nutrient-dense" foods we eat.
  2. Reducing our intake of sodium, and of solid fats and added sugars (now called SoFAS).

The most nutritious bang for the buck

What you want to put in your grocery cart are nutrient-dense foods and beverages. These have relatively few calories yet are rich in:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Other healthy substances

Nutrient-dense foods are also low in solid fats and have not been diluted with “junk” calories such as added sugars.

Top choices include:

  • All vegetables and fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Beans and peas
  • Unsalted nuts and seeds
  • Fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products
  • Lean meats and poultry

Shop around the perimeter of the grocery store to find these nutrient-dense foods.

Beware of the middle aisles

The middle aisles of the grocery store are where you’ll find these dietary culprits linked to obesity:

  • SoFAS
  • Sodium

Solid fats

Solid fats are found in:

  • Fatty animal products — marbleized steak, full-fat (regular) cheeses and ice cream.
  • Baked goods such as cookies and crackers.
  • Convenience foods that contain hydrogenated fats (liquid vegetable oils put through a chemical process to solidify them).

Compare saturated fat and trans fat amounts on the “Nutrition Facts” box on packaged foods and look for hydrogenated fats on the “Ingredients” lists to identify foods with solid fats.

Added sugars

Added sugars don’t occur naturally in fruit, milk or other foods. These sugars include:

  • Corn syrup, corn syrup solids and high-fructose corn syrup
  • Juice concentrates
  • Raw, brown and white sugar
  • Fructose, fructose sweetener and liquid fructose
  • Malt, maple and pancake syrup
  • Honey and molasses
  • Anhydrous and crystal dextrose

Steer clear of foods with added sugars at the top of their ingredients panels.


Sodium is the mineral in salt. It helps to flavor and preserve canned and packaged foods. Sodium is abundant in:

  • Processed meats
  • Cheese
  • Salted snacks

Comparing labels for sodium content can be a real eye-opener.

Get off the SoFAS and have fun

Filling your grocery cart with nutritious foods can be rewarding and fun for your family. With each trip, try comparing a few similar products for SoFAS and sodium content. Before you know it, you’ll have added new favorite foods and brands to your weekly shopping list. For kids, it can be like solving a puzzle. Plus, they’ll take pride of ownership in the foods they choose.

What You Need Every Day

The 2010 USDA dietary guidelines set the following daily limits or targets:

  • Fat: 20 to 25 percent of total calories
  • Saturated fat: less than 10 percent of total calories
  • Trans fat: less than 1 percent of calories
  • Cholesterol: less than 300 milligrams (mg)
  • Fiber: 14 grams per 1,000 calories
  • Potassium: 4,700 mg
  • Sodium: 2,300 mg — but less than 1,500 mg for everyone over 50, all African Americans, and everyone with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease,including children
  • Fruits and vegetables: at least 2.5 cups
  • Refined grains: less than 3 ounces