Some people say fit bodies are made in the kitchen. While that may be true, it’s probably more accurate to say successful weight loss starts at the supermarket.
When you buy nutritious foods, you have the means to make healthy meals (and snacks) to support your efforts. On the other hand, if you stock your cart with junk food, you might struggle to stay the course.
But even with the best of intentions, your shopping trip can get tripped up. Here, May Zhu, RDN, LDN, founder of Nutrition Happens, explains nine common mistakes you might make at the grocery store and shares strategies to shop smarter.
Mistake 1: You Only Shop the Perimeter
The age-old advice to shop the perimeter of the store isn’t bad, per se — that’s where you’ll typically find fruits, veggies and other fresh, healthy foods. But if you don’t venture to the middle aisles, you’re missing out.
The center of the supermarket supplies a slew of nutritious food options (think: legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains and frozen fruits and vegetables) that are a total win for weight loss, Zhu says.
Plus, canned foods like chickpeas, instant brown rice and frozen veggies make for quick, healthy meals that can conveniently fit into any lifestyle, Zhu says.
Mistake 2: You Ignore the Canned and Frozen Food Aisles
Even if you’re a fan of fresh foods, you shouldn’t snub canned and frozen varieties.
“In fact, frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts,” Zhu says.
That’s because they’re frozen at their peak ripeness, so they retain all the good-for-you vitamins and minerals.
Not to mention, frozen and canned options are incredibly convenient — they come pre-washed and chopped — and can be more budget-friendly than their fresh equivalents, Zhu adds.
“We want to make healthy eating as easy as possible,” she says. “So if having canned and frozen options makes creating healthy meals easier for you, then by all means, don’t skip those aisles.”
Mistake 3: You Don’t Choose Wisely at the Salad Bar
While the supermarket salad bar can be a healthy and convenient lunch choice, it does have its pitfalls. For one, the buffet-style bar doesn’t serve pre-portioned food items. Plus, there are no nutritional labels, so it might be hard to approximate calories, fat, sugar and sodium content.
Still, you shouldn’t necessarily shy away from the salad bar, as it offers oodles of healthy options.
When in doubt, stick to fruits, vegetables and lean proteins (think: legumes and chicken breast) to help you build a healthy plate, Zhu says. Just be mindful that any dish with additional sauces, dressings and creamy dips will up your calorie count, so plate your portions accordingly.
Mistake 4: You Buy (and Then Eat) Snacks in Bulk
Buying in bulk is smart for your wallet and your waistline — as long as you’re not eating in bulk too. When you nosh directly from an economy-size bag of popcorn or almonds, it can be hard to keep track of servings.
To avoid overeating when you buy in bulk, try pre-portioning your snacks to make serving sizes that match your overall health goals, Zhu recommends.
Similarly, individually wrapped snacks (which you can also buy in bulk) like 100-calorie packs of nuts or granola (without added sugar) can be a smart strategy too, because they’re easy to track calorie-wise and help teach you what an appropriate serving looks like, Zhu says.
Mistake 5: You Buy Less-Than-Healthy Food Just Because It’s on Sale
Nothing beats a good bargain, we get it. But just because chips are two for one this week doesn’t mean you should toss them in your shopping cart.
“It’s a good idea to ask yourself the intentions behind a purchase before buying,” Zhu says. “If you’re leaning toward buying it just because it’s on sale, it’s better to reconsider or save that purchase for when you really want it.”
But if you’re really craving those cheap chips, go for it. “You can absolutely still eat foods you love even if weight loss is your goal,” says Zhu, adding, “it’s all about the right portions and adjusting your overall weekly intake.”
In other words, if you nosh on those chips today, maybe aim for a healthier snack, like veggies dipped in hummus, tomorrow.
Mistake 6: You Indulge in Free Samples
Who hasn’t snacked on free samples when strolling through Whole Foods? But those tiny morsels add up at the end of the day.
“Samples may seem harmless here and there, but you’ll have to factor in these extra calories as you consider the rest of your weekly intake, especially if there are several samples in one trip,” Zhu says. “Certain samples — like nuts, granola bars and desserts — can often contain a higher amount of calories in smaller portions,” she adds.
Remember, weight loss requires a calorie deficit. So, skipping the samples might be your best bet. But if you still want to sample while shopping, simply plan ahead. Prep your weekly meals in advance to adjust for these extra calories, Zhu recommends.
Mistake 7: You Don’t Read Nutrition Labels
Before you commit an item to your cart, flip it around and scan the nutrition info first.
Reading nutrition labels “can help us be more mindful of the foods we’re eating throughout the day and assess the value they add to our goals,” Zhu says. “Certain foods can be more valuable when it comes to creating a calorie deficit for weight loss.”
For example, “we know that a higher protein-plus-fiber combination can help us stay fuller for longer, and these are all things we can learn and use from the nutrition label,” she explains.
Similarly, steer clear of foods high in saturated fat, sodium and sugars, and instead, select those rich with nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, iron and potassium.
Also study the serving size, so you don’t inadvertently overeat. For example, one package of pretzels can include several servings.
Mistake 8: You Shop While Hungry
Going to the grocery store while your tummy grumbles is never a good idea. When you shop on an empty stomach, you may be more tempted to nibble on those free goodies and buy junk food.
Case in point: A June 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that hungry grocery shoppers made more unhealthy choices and purchased more high-calorie food options.
The takeaway? Fill your belly before you head to the supermarket. And if you’re on-the-go, keep healthy portable snacks on hand to appease your appetite during your shopping trip. Aim for quick bites with the right balance of protein, fat and carbs like a low-sugar, nut-based granola bar or a piece of fruit paired with a handful of almonds.
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Mistake 9: You Don’t Make a Shopping List (and Stick to It)
Grocery shopping without a plan is a recipe for disaster. Wandering the aisles aimlessly can lead to impulse buying, which could bust your budget and sabotage your healthy diet.
“Sticking to a grocery list helps keep the focus on your goals and ensures you have all the tools and ingredients you need to succeed for the week,” Zhu says.
And “if you’re feeling deprived, add one or two foods to the list that bring you joy or satisfy you, and allow yourself to have it in the right portions,” she adds. “Including some wild-card items won’t hold you back from your goals as long as you’re making sure that you’re consistently eating nutrient-rich options the rest of the time.”