It’s a classic scenario: you’re shopping for groceries and you want to buy healthy foods, but sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s actually healthy. The labels might say “low-fat” or “reduced sodium,” but sometimes that can be misleading. Still, you want to try to lose weight and eat well in the New Year, so you fill up your cart with items using your best judgment. But, what if you were jinxed from the moment you set foot in the store? Your healthy shopping mission may have been destined for failure right from the start. The good news is there are steps you can take to improve your chances at buying healthy groceries.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says a book called “Slim By Design” by food psychologist and behavioral economist Brian Wansink holds some valuable information about the environments in which we eat. “Wansink did extensive research on food behaviors and how they affect weight,” Tillman said. “His basic concept is that becoming slimmer by design works better than trying to slim down through willpower alone. He observed five specific food-related environments, including the grocery store, where he believes most of our best and worst eating habits begin,” she explained.
“One of Wansink’s solutions for healthy grocery shopping was to use the ‘half-cart’ solution,” Tillman said. “If you think about your typical grocery cart, odds are it is comprised of no more than 24 percent fruits and vegetables. If our goal for the year is to eat more of these, then it’s necessary to have more of them on hand. Dr. Wansink did experiments with divided grocery carts that visually indicated that you fill the front half with fruits and vegetables and the back half with everything else. He found that shoppers who tried this ended up buying twice as many fruits and vegetables,” she explained.
Tillman says there’s also a strategy for navigating the grocery store’s aisles. “When you’re trying to shop for healthy foods, it can be beneficial to shop the healthy aisles first,” Tillman said. “In one experiment, Dr. Wansink put a two-inch wide green line on the floor of the grocery store’s entrance that led through the produce section. Shoppers who followed the ‘green highway’ spent an average of three minutes longer in the produce section and spent about three dollars more on fruits and vegetables than those who veered off the path. What can we learn from this and apply to our own shopping? Think about the time you spend on a particular aisle while you’re shopping. The longer we spend in a section or aisle, the more we tend to buy,” she said. “Try purposefully walking down every aisle of the produce section, and then head for the frozen vegetables and lean meats,” she added.
Another old adage has some value: don’t shop hungry. “Research shows that we don’t necessarily buy more when you’re hungry, but we do tend to buy ‘worse,’” Tillman said. “This, of course, means junk foods such as the ‘four Cs’ – crackers, chips, candy and cereal. One strategy that seems to interrupt these types of cravings is to chew gum while you’re shopping. It tends to block our sensory desires for crunchy chips or ice cream. Dr. Wansink found that shoppers who chew gum while shopping rated themselves as less hungry and less tempted by food,” she explained. “They also bought 7 percent less junk food than those who did not chew gum,” she added.
Finally, Tillman says the ‘half-plate’ rule can help you buy healthy foods. “When you’re trying to eat healthy, you want to try to fill your plate halfway with fruits, vegetables or salad. The other half of the plate, though, can be anything you want it to be,” Tillman said. “This type of freedom seems to encourage most people to continue to make healthier choices by filling the rest of the plate with similarly healthy foods and eating less overall,” she explained.