One of the things I like doing when visiting a new country or culture: go to the nearest supermarket and see what people buy for food. You learn the most amazing things when you do that. For instance:
Italian supermarkets are full of pasta ingredients. There is typically one full aisle for the pasta itself, then another aisle for tomato products, an aisle full of olive oils. The meats and produce are out of this world, even in your typical grocery store, and they seem never to sell generic produce, only seasonal types.
German supermarkets are full of sweets, breads, and desserts. You’d think the only thing Germans eat are carbohydrates – and empty ones at that. Around every major holiday, then, the desserts and candy double, overtaking pretty much the whole place. Around Christmas time, then, you’d think the whole nation has entered a rat race for the most sugar eaten.
French supermarkets are strangely full of all foods we typically associate with France. Rows of cheeses, myriads of wines, savoir vivre everywhere.
When you come to America, then, you get a very odd picture of what people eat. There are rows and rows of cereals, and rows and rows of frozen goods. The produce section is made up entirely of generic, out-of-season fruits and vegetables, and unhealthy snacks and sodas are everywhere.
One day, I decided to go to the nearest, generic supermarket and walk the aisles. The purpose: to record the percentage of healthy foods I could find. My criteria: staples of a balanced diet; things to which there is no healthier equivalent; things that won’t harm you much.
Summary: not even 10% of the supermarket had healthy food in store. Unless you know what you are buying, you’ll end up with stuff you don’t want to eat.
I had no patience to write down the physical layout of the store, so I went to an online grocery store, instead. The major one I know is the one offered by Safeway, at safeway.com. Now, please understand: this is neither an endorsement of the store nor criticism. I simply went there because their aisles were available for anyone to see. Also, the store posts nutritional information on pretty much everything they sell, so it’s up to you to make informed choices.
But here are the aisles, as presented in the online store:
Beer, Wine, and Spirits
The occasional glass of red wine is supposed to be good for you. I am sure some good can come out of very moderate amounts of beer (considering yeasts produce tons of vitamins). All in all, though, I don’t quite feel like recommending you spend a lot of time in this section.
The subsections here start with Coffee and Tea, which I suppose is passable. We then have Water, which is great (aside from the controversy about bottled water) and Juices, which are rather so-so. I wouldn’t fully endorse 100% fruit juices, because I think eating the fruit is better than drinking the juice. And the “nectars” made of water, sugar, and some fruit are just plain to be avoided.
Sodas, sports drinks, and seltzers round up this section. Avoid, avoid, avoid. (I do hear that Gatorade has finally decided to offer low and zero calorie options, though. Thankfully: sports drinks of all brands had become a horrible fat maker thanks to copious amounts of sugars.)
Well, let’s walk through carb central, shall we? Much of the baked goods section appeals to the sugar centers in the brain, no matter how much bread can be really healthy. At least, here you can make good choices. You can also make really bad choices, though. Really, really bad choices. Like that bear claw that is waving at you. Or that fluffy white bread right next to the whole wheat choice.
The bakery section, in my experience, is where price reductions are used in the most disheartening way. While in the soda aisle, diet and regular sodas are put on sale at the same time, in the bakery section it always seem to be the least nutritionally useful items that are discounted. You know, the bread that mysteriously has more sugars on the nutritional label than anything else.
I wish supermarkets used differential pricing (where you get a steep discount on one item so that you’ll get into the door) with more consideration for health. Of course, they know what they are doing, and that people that are health-conscious tend to respond less to price incentives. It still hurts to see the whole wheat bread costing twice as much as the “refined” version thanks to some coupon.
Breakfast and Cereal
Don’t get me started. The whole aisle is a monument to bad food, with the few exceptions buried in a vast ocean of things you should avoid, especially in the early morning.
What I don’t like? Too much sugar, pretty much throughout the aisle. Carbohydrates without fibers. Artificial colorings and flavorings. Ridiculously small serving sizes, so that you end up eating three or four servings in one go. And a perfectly engineered combination of sensations that make cereals and the other members of the group just too hard to resist.
You can eat cereals as part of a healthy diet. But cereals are dangerous. The really good ones are dangerously yummy as snacks, and as such they are devastatingly worse (nutritionally) than other snacks. Even relatively healthy cereals have that problem: I love Kashi GoLean! Crunch, for instance, but I can easily eat through a whole box while watching a movie (that’s about 1,500 calories!).
I won’t even comment on those items that are just plain bad for you, no matter what: toaster pastries and breakfast bars. Meant to give you a head start by shaving off minutes in the morning, they come loaded with sugars and artificial everythings, while the only time they save you is quality time.
Canned Goods and Soups
Ah, strangely here is one aisle that is full to the brim with healthy options. Canned meat and fish have in part very high protein contents (easy on the fish, because of mercury risks). Canned vegetables have outstandingly good nutritional values (if not the same taste as fresh or frozen varieties). Even the soups can be quite nutritious, now that all major brands have light and reduced sodium varieties.
Surely, you’ll be surprised to hear me wax lyrical about the section that is traditionally considered unhealthy. Fact is, though, that we have made a lot of progress in canning and conserving, and much of newer products are actually surprisingly good for you. Make sure you avoid the canned fruit with sugar (they add tons in certain brands), stay away from preserves in oil (like tuna or certain vegetables), and make sure the can is not loaded with sodium!
Cookies, Snacks, and Candy
From a surprisingly good aisle to an unsurprisingly bad aisle. You can pretty much skip it entirely for nutritional value, and if you shop in there, just make sure you don’t buy any family packs or even what they consider average sizes these days.
Any diet should allow for the occasional pleasure food, like a cookie or a bag of M&M’s, otherwise it’s pretty grim. You should avoid what you crave only if you are unable to limit yourself – in which case you should really talk with a Chocolatics Anonymous group near you.
What even the best-intentioned and best-behaved dieter should avoid, though, are large sources of empty calories. I have a practical rule in my shopping: never buy anything that has more than 10 servings in it, or 1000 calories. A typical bar or chocolate, for instance, clocks in at about 500-600 calories. A go. A typical bag of M&M’s (the pounder) is over 1,500. A no-go. Let’s not even talk about the giant bag of chips that can easily add 3,500 calories. That’s an unhappy dieter in the morning waiting to happen!
Dairy, Eggs, and Cheese
A dangerous aisle with some really good options. First, the news: there are very healthy items in this category if you seek them out; most of the items in this category, tough, are seriously loaded with everything that’s bad for you.
Let’s start with dairy… Milk, yogurt, cream… I hear a lot of people complain about the low-fat and fat free variants, but you have to learn to love them. Fortunately, experience tells me you just get used to the difference. At first, fat free milk tastes watery and thin, but once you are used to it, regular milk tasted greasy and gross. The trick? Mixins.
When you get milk, start with your preferred fatty variant and buy some of the lower-fat version. Add some of the lower-fat version into your regular. Continue doing so and increase the amount of lower-fat. Continue until you reach the fat-free version and the regular fat version tastes disgusting. Takes a few months, saves you tons of calories.
The same is true for cheese (although the reduced fat versions tend to be reduced taste – just a matter of finding the right brands) and especially for eggs: use as much egg substitute as possible in cooking. My personal favorite: the egg substitute with mixed in veggies and flavoring. You cheat on the prep time for scrambled eggs and omelet, and you get the better nutritional values, by far.
How do you spell, mixed blessing? Another aisle that has a few very healthy items in an ocean of unhealthy choices. To make it short: avoid everything here except for the sliced deli meats. The poultry, in particular, can only be faulted for excess sodium, but is otherwise quite healthy.
The salads, slaws, prefab meats… I’d really skip them. They usually cost a ton more than the ingredients bought separately, and you save incredibly little time.
Ah, my favorite aisle. Single male = constant TV dinner. Sad reality, but if it wasn’t for those, I’d probably survive on lunch meats, cans of tuna, and potato chips. OK, throw in a few baby carrots and protein bars for good measure. And the occasional restaurant visit for a date. (But that last one is a nutritional pitfall of its own.)
The reality is that the frozen food section has the best and the worst choices for food rolled all in one area. As such, it’s like a microcosm of the supermarket experience as a whole, only behind glass and colder than the rest.
Good choices: frozen vegetables and fruit – typically much, much tastier than their brethren in the produce section, since they ripen longer. That usually also means that they have more nutrients, not less as frequently thought. In that section, just make sure you don’t get any “enhancers,” like creamy sauces, butter, salt, sugar etc. Go for the straight-up fruits and vegetables, as evidenced by the Ingredients.
TV dinners are another good choice – if you look. Typically, they are a bad value – if you count the calories per dollar spent, you can’t get a worse deal. But of course we care less about calories per dollar than about health, and lots of TV dinners are designed around the health-conscious shopper. Besides, TV dinners make portion control easy, which always comes in handy when calorie counting.
There are oodles of different brands, and each brand has a different focus. Personally, I like Healthy Choice (the ones in the green package) best, while I tend to avoid Lean Cuisine, but it’s all a matter of personal preference. Store brands (like Safeway’s Eating Right) can be relative bargains.
Ice Cream is a guilty pleasure that comes in varying degrees of guilt. Lately, they came up with reducing fat in ice cream by slow-churning, a process that reduces the calories but leaves the taste largely intact. Many brands have reduced fat, reduced sugar options (most notably Breyer’s) and you really must stick to them. Always check the sugar content – especially sorbets and frozen yogurts, otherwise branded as health-conscious because they had less fat, can be loaded with sugars.
I was very disappointed with small portions – like 100 calorie mini-cones. They tend to be so tiny, they fit in the palm of your hand and leave you completely dissatisfied. It’s like eating a brownie bite and declaring it a dessert. Huh?
Personal favorite? Skinny cow. They really try hard to give you a product that is relatively healthy, and delicious. When I run out of their chocolate fudge ice cream cones, my freezer starts crying.
Frozen Meats are a great way of shopping for healthy foods that don’t go to waste. Make sure there are no additives!
Breakfast items really really are no good. They are not terrible, but if you have to serve waffles, pancakes, or French toast, just realize it should be rare enough that you wouldn’t mind making them from scratch.
I hate the produce section in my supermarket. That’s why I left if for last (note: that’s a lie, it’s just the last one alphabetically). It promises health and it delivers nothing. Bland-tasting vegetables, out-of-season fruit. Lettuces that taste like crispified water. Apples and onions that are indistinguishable if you pinch your nose when you bite. Bananas that taste like flour paste.
The modern produce section is an abomination, and possibly the original reason for the gourmet organic movement. If you have access to a real farmers market or, even better, to real farms – you know how glorious real fruits and vegetables taste!
I grew up with real tomatoes, potatoes, berries, apples, pears. I know real asparagus, artichokes. I went to Hawaii and had real mango, papaya, even bananas. If you eat the real thing, you won’t even recognize the supermarket version.
Do yourself two favors: go to a farmers market, especially if you have young children. If you get them used to supermarket apples, broccoli, and iceberg lettuce, they will never learn to like veggies. Buy less, but better, and you’ll give them a lifelong love of salads and veggie side dishes.
The other favor you should do to yourself and your family: go to your supermarket manager and complain. Tell her or him that you’d love to buy their produce because of convenience, but that you won’t accept the stuff they are selling you. Tell them that it’s not enough to have a mini-heirloom-tomato and organic apples section to make you change your habits – that they have to rethink completely how and where they source produce, because if you can only buy 10% of your it with them, then you’ll just buy everything somewhere else.
They’ll push back, saying that they sell what their customers want to buy, which is “cheap.” Doesn’t matter. The more people go and talk with them, telling them they’d rather spend 10% or 20% more to get produce they actually like eating, the more they’ll understand what’s going on.