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How to Grocery Shop for Optimal Health

I recently read a Washington Post article that said that 8 out of 10 Americans are confused about what is healthy. People are right to be confused. There are so many health claims and misinformation out there that it is hard to know who and what to trust. This makes navigating the various aisles of your local grocery store for healthy food complicated and frustrating. It often feels like you need an expert to help you grocery shop. However, eating healthy should be accessible for everyone, not just nutritionists and dietitians. Especially for those struggling with mental illness, healthy food is essential to feeling your best in the short and long term. That is why I recommend these two general principles to help you fill your cart with nourishing foods.

Principle 1: Only shop along the outer rim of the grocery store. Have you ever noticed that the outer rim of the grocery store is where all the fresh food is? Fresh produce and meat are your targets when you grocery shop. You cannot go wrong in these aisles. If you want to go above and beyond by minimizing your toxic exposure and have the budget for it, look for words like organic, non-GMO, grass-fed, and pasture-raised within this framework. I especially recommend reducing toxic exposure for those with mental illness and chronic illnesses such as autoimmune disease and inflammatory diseases.

Here are some reasons for eating the whole, real foods that reside along the outer rim:

  1. Whole foods have their nutrients intact and nicely packaged amongst other beneficial complexes such as fiber, polyphenols, enzymes, etc. that aid in digestion, nourish the body, and help prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, autoimmunity, inflammatory diseases, and cancer. Whereas processing often removes or damages nutrients, so eating foods that have been pre-prepared and packaged (like those found in the center aisles of your grocery store) will not be as nourishing.

  2. Processed foods are often high in sugar--particularly those that claim to be low in fat. Did you know that more than 1 in 3 Americans are pre-diabetic? Chronic exposure to elevated levels of glucose (one of the building blocks of sugars and starches) can lead to diseases like diabetes. There is some suggestion that diabetes is also associated with Alzheimers. The best way to prevent these diseases is to minimize your sugar intake. Large amounts of sugar can have a variety of profound negative impacts on the body. To find out if sugar is effecting you, I recommend taking our RESTART® class this fall that has a 3-week sugar detox included in the class.

  3. GRAS, "generally recognized as safe," ingredients do not need to be tested for their safety and do not need to be listed on ingredient labels. You may not even know what you are buying and ingesting with processed foods.

  4. The triage theory of nutrition: this theory by Dr. Bruce Ames suggests that when your body is even slightly below optimal levels for vitamin and minerals stores it will prioritize acute or immediate health problems over long-term health. For example, vitamin K is used for blood clotting and for clearing up calcification in your arteries. Blood clotting is obviously a more immediate need for life in your body, so if you are deficient in vitamin K your body will use what it has on blood clotting and not on preventing calcification of your arteries. So slowly over time, your arteries will calcify, but you may never notice it until bad things start happening. When you replace a nutrient-dense meal with a nutrient-poor meal you miss out on the opportunity to replenish your vitamin and mineral stores for optimal nutrition and long-term health. Just because you feel full does not mean you have nourished your body. Choosing foods that are in their whole, unprocessed forms ensures that you will be getting the valuable nutrients you need.

Principle 2: Only buy items that have 5 or fewer ingredients (that you can identify).

If you venture into the center aisles (which really should be done sparingly), select items that have 5 or fewer ingredients that you can identify. This helps you select items that don't contain weird and potentially harmful ingredients. The closer you stay to the original plant or animal that the item came from, the better off you are. Highly processed and refined products have been changed in ways that remove nutrients and alter their chemical shapes; transforming them into possibly harmful ingredients. And the reality is, the scientific community may not know if these processed ingredients are safe or not until it is too late. This is exactly what happened with trans fat. In the late 20th century our society switched from animal-based fats to vegetable-based fats. But food companies needed a way to keep the consistency of their products the same (because most animal fats are solid and room temperature, but most vegetable fats are liquid), so they began solidifying vegetable oils with a process called hydrogenation. This was the birth of trans fat which was believed to be a healthy alternative at the time. Now we know, however, that trans fat is truly damaging to the body. That is why cities like New York have banned trans fat from all restaurants. Pre-packaged and processed foods are a part of the largest health experiment our society has ever undertaken and unfortunately it is incredibly poorly designed study with zero controls leaving us clueless as to what is truly at fault. If you do not want to participate in this study, staying out of the center aisles of your grocery store and keeping pre-prepared foods to under 5 ingredients will help.

These two principles keep grocery shopping for optimal health uncomplicated and accessible to everyone. They will guide you to choosing products that will truly nourish your body. That does not mean they are simple to implement, however. Many people find that they need additional support from a health coach. If you are wanting more in-depth information to empower you as you grocery shop, sign-up for my free class, Grocery Shopping 101.

Janet Wickenheiser is currently pursuing a certification as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner from the Nutritional Therapy Association. She is the Office Manager at Playmore & Prosper and also blogs at

Playmore & Prosper is a collaborative community of health and wellness professionals who provide a unique, evidence-based, experiential approach to counseling and wellness services for kids and families. Our mission is to invite people into personal growth experiences through activity and the expressive arts. 

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