For those who don’t grow or raise food, good nutrition begins at the grocery store. But how many of us actually stop to think about making the healthiest choices when we shop?
"Nutrition isn’t really taught," Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium community dietician Genevieve Armstrong said in an interview this week.
Obesity and its attendant health problems, diabetes and heart disease, are epidemic in our country, an issue frequently reported in the media, Armstrong said. "Okay, but how do we change that? Knowledge is power."
About a dozen residents examined their shopping habits and learned how to make healthier choices last week during tours down the aisles of two local groceries with Armstrong.
"You may have heard the saying, ‘Shop the perimeters," Armstrong told a group of grocery shoppers Thursday afternoon. "The less processed foods are there. The fresh food is all there—that’s the good stuff."
Armstrong walked past the fruits and vegetables section, noting that almost all the choices there were healthy.
She stopped instead in front of the bread aisle, where tricky labels and tough choices abound.
Armstrong picked up a loaf of bread labeled "100 percent whole wheat" and turns it over to examine the nutrition information.
More than half the carbohydrates a healthy person consumes should be whole grains like whole wheat, she said. Whole grains provide a range of important nutrients, and are also a major source of fiber, which is beneficial in helping the body eliminate wastes and keeping cholesterol at healthy levels.
"You want to get that fiber up."
White bread is made of wheat that has had most of the nutrients removed during processing. Federal regulations require white bread manufacturers to replace nutrients such as thiamin, riboflavin, folic acid and iron, but not fiber, Armstrong said.
But knowing white from wheat isn’t as easy as reading the label—that information is in the fine print.
The whole wheat bread in Armstrong’s hands contained 3 grams of fiber according to the nutrition panel on the back of the package. That meant it was made with whole wheat and was a nutritious, fiber-rich food, she said.
Picking up a package labeled "split-top wheat," Armstrong noted only 1 gram of fiber listed. The first item on the ingredients list is "enriched wheat flour."
"That means it’s actually white flour. The nutrients have been stripped out and added back in."
Armstrong led the group to the meat section, picking up a package of steak containing two completely red pieces of meat. "Meat can fit into a healthy diet. Rounds and loins are the leanest cuts, and choice grades have less flecks of fat."
Prime rib or a New York steak are flecked with white bits of fat, and are a less healthy choice, she said. But a compromise might be to buy the New York and trim the fat off the edge before cooking it.
Resident Eileen Wisdom is cost-conscious when she shops, and said she didn’t want to pay for the fat on the New York steak. "If they trim (the fat), I’ll buy it."
Fat is also what makes it taste good, noted resident Daphne Ormerod during a discussion of the health benefits of leaner, white meat chicken over fattier dark cuts. "I prefer the dark meat. The white meat is dry."
Armstrong suggested dressing up white meat with salsa to make it tastier. But she said eating dark meat chicken occasionally was okay. "All food can fit in a healthy diet. It’s about making smart choices" and eating fatty foods in moderation.
Armstrong turned to the ice cream cooler. The group looked skeptical, perhaps expecting to be relegated to frozen yogurt. Instead, Armstrong picked up "Slow-Churned" ice cream.
"Lots of brands are getting into slow-churned. When they are making the ice cream, the freezing temperature is much higher, so they can use lower fat milk."
The slow-churned vanilla ice cream had 3.5 grams of fat per serving compared to 9 grams for conventional vanilla ice cream.
Passing the deli counter, Armstrong said people concerned about sodium intake needed to carefully read the labels at the deli counter.
A deli worker, overhearing the conversation, added that he would never eat bologna again, as he had learned it was 23 percent fat.
Stopping at the dairy cooler, Armstrong advised eating mostly egg whites, as the yolks contain no protein and contain all an egg’s fat and cholesterol. Buying a carton of eggs and using whites while throwing away the yolk was slighter cheaper per unit than a pre-made yolkless egg product.
Armstrong asked what butter or margarine products shoppers used, and pointed out levels of saturated and transfats on the nutrition labels. "Some companies don’t label transfats, so look for partially hydrogenated fats."
Healthier fats, such as oil from vegetables and fish, are liquid at room temperature. To market these fats as solid butter-like spreads, manufacturers put the oils through a hydrogenating process, which hardens them. Transfats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
Armstrong’s advice continued along the same theme through the store: keep fat and sodium levels low, choose foods high in fiber.
Low fat and skim milk, cheese, and yogurt are healthier than full-fat varieties, but the shopper should beware of high sugar loads in low-fat yogurt. Canned fruit packed in juice is healthier than packed in syrup. Washing canned beans and vegetables can reduce their sodium content by 40 percent, and washing canned fruit reduces added sugars. Whole-wheat pasta is healthier than pasta made with white flour, brown rice has more nutrients than white rice—which is just brown rice with the husk polished off.
"The problem is I like the taste" of my regular brands, said Eileen Wisdom after the tour, referring to her favorite butter spread she had learned was high in saturated fat. "But it is true you get used to it. I’ve used fat-free milk for 30 years. Now I can’t take the other kind."