Grocery Gamble


Navigating nutrition requires attention and a commitment to better choices

A trip to the grocery store is a veritable stew of decision-making. Broccoli or beans for dinner. Fresh or frozen fruit. Wheat, white, or rye bread. Beef or chicken. Sirloin or chuck. Fruity Pebbles or Lucky Charms. (The answer there should be neither.)

And there are lots of variables behind the choices we make. Personal preference. Cost. Brand loyalty. Environmental awareness. And, we have to assume, health.

Even within the healthy choices category, there are a variety of issues to be aware of. Added sugar. Saturated fat. Sodium content. Dietary fiber. Lactose. Gluten. And who could forget the myriad of ingredients that are unrecognizable or whose words are too long to pronounce? It’s enough to make a frazzled shopper grab a frozen pizza and run. But that wouldn’t be a good choice, for a variety of reasons.

For help, we turn to two local experts, Janet Seiber, clinical dietitian at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, and Lee Murphy, registered dietitian and senior lecturer at the University of Tennessee, to take us on a tour of the grocery store and discuss the decisions we’re up against. Pay strict attention; it’s a lot to, ahem, digest.

It’s hard to go wrong when we’re shopping for produce, Seiber and Murphy agree. In fact, we’d do well to shop that section more often and thoroughly, since most Americans don’t consume the five fruits and vegetables per day the USDA recommends. Shopping for a wide variety of colors there ensures a good range of vitamins and minerals, and fresh produce also provides the dietary fiber necessary for a healthy digestive tract.

Some nutrition experts encourage shoppers to consider organic produce, especially when it comes to items without a skin or peel. And remember, if an item is labeled organic, it meets the necessary criteria regarding pesticide use.

Breads and Bakery

The name of the game for good choices in breads and grains is more fiber and less sugar. Added sugars are one of the biggest nutritional culprits targeted by health experts today. They lead to serious health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Added sugars are those that are added to foods when they are processed. (Naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruits and milk, are not added sugars.) As of this year, added sugars must be listed on food labels immediately below the Total Sugars line.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but sugars by any number of names should still best be avoided. Those names include corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, malt syrup, maltose, sucrose, honey, and molasses. Cookies and cakes and other such desserts are usually laden with added sugars and shouldn’t be part of a daily diet.

As far as breads, Seiber says to aim for at least two grams of fiber per serving and little or no added sugar. Whole grain or whole wheat should be one of the first items listed in the ingredients list. What about multigrain? Doesn’t mean a thing, she says. As far as gluten, it’s only important to avoid if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. There’s no need to avoid it for general health purposes.

Dietary fiber is also the reason why nutritionists favor brown rice, whole wheat pastas, steel cut oats and other whole grains over their processed, whiter counterparts. Besides keeping things moving well digestively, fiber also slows the rate at which sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream. That keeps your blood glucose levels from rising too fast, such as when you’ve eaten a sugary treat on an empty stomach and felt somewhat off afterward.

Saturated fat—the kind that solidifies when it cools, like bacon fat or the trimmings from a big juicy ribeye—is the culprit in the meat department. However, it is easily avoided—or at least minimized—with smart choices. Choose leaner cuts—loins and rounds—rather than the heavily marbled or fatty chucks and shoulders. In ground meats, aim for something around 90 percent lean, Seiber says. And remember, a serving size of protein is only about three or four ounces.

Seafood is an important element for a healthy diet too, and two servings per week are recommended. The fat that is in fish is omega 3, Seiber says, and that is anti-inflammatory. Because Tennessee isn’t a coastal state, Seiber recommends using fresh fish within a day or two of purchase or buying it frozen.

Other concerns with proteins involve how the animals or fish are raised, and two Knoxville chiropractors who incorporate nutritional advice into their practices warn about the chemicals that can be found in grain-fed meats and farmed fish.

“There are hundreds of studies that link commercial meats with cancer and heart disease,” Dr. Jack Parrish of Victory Health Center told a group of adults who’d gathered for his nutrition class. “They feed grain to animals that were created to eat grass. This changes the fatty acid ratio and denatures good fats, which leads to modern day disease.”

Dr. Pete Sulack of Exodus Chiropractic shares similar views. “When you eat fish,” he says, “the reason you do is the omega 3 fatty acids. Fish in the wild eat algae, but farmed fish do not, and that algae is important in the production of the omega 3s.”

Eggs and Dairy

We’re back to the hazards of saturated fats in the dairy department—those fats that solidify when solid, on a dish or in our arteries. Butter and cheeses are bad boys for saturated fats, so use them sparingly, Seiber suggests. Margarine has its own problems; stick margarine tends to include hydrogenated oils and trans fats, which are no better.

Low- or no-fat milks are the smart choice—or unsweetened non-dairy “milks,” such as almond or coconut. Yogurt is good for digestive health; Greek yogurt has had more liquids drained off and contains more protein and fewer carbs. Lots of yogurts have added sugar or sugar substitutes, so be aware of that.

Eggs are a good source of protein; Sulack prefers cage-free organic eggs, which, though more expensive, contains higher levels of amino acids and proteins, he says.

Processed Foods

We’ve all probably heard that the healthiest way to shop is to stick to the outer perimeters of the grocery store—the produce, breads, meats, and dairy sections, specifically. But most of us do venture into the center aisles where the processed foods reside. Here are the culprits to watch out for:

Sodium: Raises blood pressure. Try to limit sodium content to 350 milligrams in a food serving, says Seiber. Daily intake should be no more than 2,300 milligrams total.

Calories per serving size: Calories per serving size are very important to consider. Moderately active women should eat about 2,000 calories per day; men should eat about 2,600. To lose weight, subtract about 500 calories per day.

Sugar and artificial sweeteners: We’ve already discussed the need to limit added sugar. The same applies to artificial sweeteners. A few servings a day is fine, Seiber says, but be careful about consuming excessive amounts.

Chemicals: Processed foods contain lots of additives that flavor, preserve, thicken, blend, and color foods, and the FDA studies, regulates, and monitors them for safety before allowing their inclusion. Still, many of them may not be great to consume in large quantities. Good rule of thumb for the most cautious of consumers: if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.

Murphy points out that ingredients are listed by descending order by weight, so if sugar is listed way up top, put that potential purchase back on the shelf. “There are some ingredients that most people might want to watch for in general,” she says, “like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils, but in my opinion the bigger issue is to try and limit sugar and less desirable ingredients as the number one or two ingredient on the list.”

The Bottom Line

Nutrition can be confusing, and sometimes it seems the advice coming from the experts changes minute by minute. Murphy doesn’t disagree. “It’s like with coffee,” she says. “Some studies say it’s going to make you live 1,000 years; others say coffee’s going to kill you. People choose to believe the study based on if they like coffee.”

The bottom line, she says, is that America’s big problem with food is eating too much of it—or too much of the wrong stuff. Weight gain and obesity is the problem we most need to address.

“Look at the serving size first,” she says of studying food labels. “If you’re eating three servings, the rest of the information on the label is irrelevant.”

Then look at the fiber content—the more the better—and limit the sugar content. And don’t forget to head out for some daily exercise.

“Of course we want people to eat right,” she says. “But if we get overwhelmed, the primary focus should be serving size, calories and fiber, and exercise.”   

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