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Manuel's Top Five: Tips for Successful Grocery Shopping

By L.K. Regan

Last week, our nutrition expert Manuel Villacorta of MV Nutrition, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You, stocked our pantry with healthy food that can keep us on a good nutritional track even on busy days. But there's no way to stock the cupboards without hitting the grocery store, and that means navigating a nutritional minefield like no other. So, this week Villacorta is going to talk us through grocery shopping. What to buy and how to buy it—it's our top five tips on grocery shopping.

"Nutrition all depends on grocery shopping, really," Villacorta says. "If you don't have the healthy food around, that's the end of your program." So it's key that we all make time during the week to buy fresh, whole foods. "Clients always say they have no time," Villacorta says. "Between work and the gym, it's too much." So here's one way to make sure you get to the store: "Cut your workouts to four to five times per week instead of five to six, and you will free up a market day. Put it in your schedule as though it were an appointment with your trainer." Think about it—one bad meal can more than undo the effects of your hard workout. You really need to make time to shop.

So, now that you're at the store, what can you do to make sure that you buy foods that will actually be good for you as well as delicious? Manuel has five simple tips.

  1. Know the store layout: When you shop, Villacorta counsels sticking to the same stores so you know where your things are and you do less potentially dangerous browsing. "Always go with a list so you know what you are going to buy," he advises. "Going aisle by aisle is the worst, especially if you're hungry. You need to know where to find your foods so that you don't end up bringing home temptation foods." Wandering in the store is a dangerous business. Stick to the list.

  2. Get control of label confusion: What are food labels really telling you? If you want to know the truth, Villacorta says, you should definitely not read the fronts of the packages. "There's marketing, and then there's real nutritional value," he says. Food companies can say all sort of misleading things on packages. "For example," Villacorta says, "I've got a package of NutriGrain bars right here. And right under the name of the product it says 'more whole grains.' And if you're buying in a hurry, and believe what it says there, you'll buy it because you think, 'Hey, whole grains are healthy.' But turn the package over and what is the first ingredient? High fructose corn syrup." Oops. Bear in mind that the first ingredient listed is the leading component. There's more corn syrup in those "whole grain bars" than any single other ingredient.

    Also, Villacorta points out, lots of packaging says "transfat free". But this can be misleading. "Lots of people know these are bad fats," Villacorta says, "but the FDA has given permission to say zero transfat if the amount is .5 grams or less per serving. So, a food can have .4 grams per serving—and if you eat a few servings, there you go." And it may not take long to get to that few servings. "No one ever eats one serving, because the serving sizes are so innacurately small most of the time," Villacorta points out, "and especially no one eats only one serving of the kinds of foods that have transfats." So what can you do? "Again, read the back of the package, not the front," Villacorta advises. "Turn it over, and read the label. If it says 'hydrogenated oils,' whether fully or partially, there is transfat in there."

    Finally, Villacorta takes on the "natural" label. "What does that even mean?" he asks. "Sodium is natural, and is found everywhere. In meat, fruits, vegetables. So, many 'natural' products are high in sodium. For example, if you buy chicken products or other meats, they plump them with sodium, and call it natural. They use the word natural because they added something natural—and it's sodium." Again the solution is to read the back of the package more carefully. "Sodium values are listed in the nutritional information," Villacorta says, "so if the package is going to be a meal, it should have no more than 500 milligrams of sodium. If it's a snack, no more than 140 milligrams."

  3. Watch out for fortified foods: Fortified foods are the ugly sibling of ultra-healthy "functional foods." Functional foods have ingredients that are beyond just vitamins or minerals, and have additional health properties. "This is tomatoes, for example," Villacorta says, "that contain lycopine. This is an antioxidant, good for the prostate and heart—a healthy product. Tomatoes can be a nearly medicinal food, for that reason." Flax seed and acai are other examples of popular functional foods right now, because of their antioxidant and other health properties. Very often you will see products boosted with lycopine, or acai or even flax seed. But, Villacorta says, it's better to avoid these and instead eat the original functional food. "When foods are fortified you are getting a processed version of that original healthy food. It's far better to eat the whole, functional version, where the chemicals are appearing in their natural form." And, Villacorta points out, "more is not always better. In their natural form, these chemicals appear in their appropriate concentrations, and in a synergistic system with the rest of the organism. But out of that system and in high concentrations they can actually be harmful." So, if you want functional foods, buy them in a natural state—delicious options include blueberries, flax seed, tomatoes, and almonds.

  4. Think through the trade-offs: Many foods are touted as being low-fat, low-carb, or high-protein. But, Villacorta warns, in order to take something out, manufacturers have to put something else in, and vice versa. That means a food low in one thing may be high in something else that you want to avoid in excess. "Low-fat is likely to be high-sugar and high-salt," Villacorta warns. "And gluten-free may be high-fat and high-sugar. Low-carb is probably high-fat. And low-sodium is likely to be high-fat and high-sugar." Ultimately, he reminds us, manufacturers are always going to add taste—and when they lower one taste element, they add others: fat, salt, sugar. So, once again, it's best to eat whole foods where these taste elements are already in balance.

  5. Beware of beverages: "Acai, green tea, vitamin water, cola with vitamins—I don't even know what to say about that last one," Villacorta groans. "The list goes on and on of supposed energy or health drinks. And all they are is water and sugar." He would have us stay away entirely from fortified beverages. "Eat your fruits and vegetables and whole grains and healthy proteins and you will be getting all your vitamins," Villacorta says. "You do not need fortified water. It is empty calories, the vitamins aren't in a system where they're functional, and those plastic water bottles are littering the planet."

There you go—five simple rules for getting your grocery cart full of food that doesn't just pretend to be nutritious. Happy shopping!