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Eating Healthier Begins with the Trip to the Supermarket

Smart Shopping

Paula Serafino-Cross

Paula Serafino-Cross says canned fruit packed in its own juice or pre-cut fruit are healthy snacks that many children enjoy.

What people eat can have a profound impact on their health, energy level, the way they feel, and their overall well-being.

But it all begins at the grocery store, where a myriad of temptations can lead shoppers to put foods in their cart that have little or no nutritional value.

“We live in a fast-paced society and eat in response to the visual, or what looks good to us. But if you want to be healthy, you have to prioritize, take time to plan meals, stick to a grocery list, avoid shopping when you’re hungry, and cook using a lot of vegetables,” said Paula Serafino-Cross, a clinical dietitian from Baystate Health Food and Nutrition Services. She added that cooking in today’s world does not have to be time-consuming, thanks to precut fruits and vegetables and products like frozen brown rice.

However, she suggests keeping granola bars or fruit in the car that can be eaten quickly to prevent going into a store hungry or stopping for fast food.

“There is a lot of great food in stores. You just have to figure out where it’s located,” she noted.

Susan Mazrolle agrees. “I’ve given tours to groups of medical students who were well-educated but didn’t know much about buying food and cooking it,” said the in-store consultant dietitian for Big Y in the Springfield region.

She noted that many people are frugal at the grocery store but extravagant in other areas that are not important. “It’s better to spend your money on healthy food than at the doctor’s office. There are good and bad choices throughout the store; healthy shopping doesn’t have to cost a lot, but you have to know what to buy.”

Theresa McAndrew, a Unidine dietitian at Holyoke Medical Center, agrees. She has spoken to many people who have told her they don’t know how to shop well. She tells them not only to read labels, but to pay attention to portion size, as it can be deceiving.

Indeed, Americans have super-sized their expectations about what a serving should look like, and the amount most consider to be normal is not accurately reflected on the Nutrition Facts labeling on packaged foods and beverages.

To correct that problem, the Food and Drug Administration has issued new standards that must be implemented by July 2018. The goal is to bring serving sizes closer to what people actually eat, so when they look at calories and nutrients on a label, it is be more in line with what they are accustomed to putting on their plate. A single serving is not a recommended amount of any food product, but only meant to reflect what the average person consumes.

For example, few people limit themselves to a half-cup of ice cream, which is the amount listed on half-gallons today, so when the new law becomes effective, the serving size will go up to two-thirds of a cup.

“People sometimes buy products based on calorie count, but then consume far more than one serving,” McAndrew noted.

Susan Mazrolle

Susan Mazrolle says many people don’t stop to think about how the food they eat can impact their health.

Other factors that can be confusing include sugar content. There is a difference between natural sugars, which are found not only in fruits, but in products such as milk and plain yogurt, and artificial sugars that are often added to products. The new labeling standards will differentiate between the two types of sugar, which is important in terms of health.

People also make choices based on price, which can work well if you know what to buy, but work against you if you don’t. For example, dietitians say Ramen Noodles are a poor choice because the product is filled with salt and saturated fat, while Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese is a better choice as it doesn’t contain artificial colors or flavors, and adding a few vegetables can bump up its nutritional value.

They know it can be difficult to avoid a buy-one, get-two-free sale, which is an excellent choice if the product is frozen vegetables, but a poor one if it’s ice cream.

“Do you really need three half-gallons calling your name?” Serafino-Cross asked, noting that people who have a difficult time with portion control can still enjoy treats in pre-measured sizes, such Diana Banana Babies, which are frozen bananas dipped in chocolate, or individual Hoodsie cups, which are better than a heaping dish of ice cream.

“Moderation is the key. A few individual bags of potato chips a week won’t hurt you, but people get in the habit of eating an entire large bag,” she told BusinessWest, explaining that eating mindfully without doing other things at the same time and savoring the taste of food allows people to be aware of how much they are eating and how it tastes.

She recommends that people who are interested visit,‎ which contains useful information on health conditions and how to address problems such as overeating.

Helpful Initiatives

Big Y kicked off its Living Well Eating Smart program in 2005, which includes a free, 12-page publication that is published every other month. Each edition has a theme and contains easy-to-prepare recipes featuring products that are on sale.

Big Y also hosts cooking demonstrations, grocery-shopping tours, and health-related events in conjunction with its pharmacies on topics such as cancer prevention.

“The premise is to help shoppers cut through confusing information and products and make their health goals more obtainable,” said Carrie Taylor, lead registered dietitian for the program. “What you bring into the house will impact what you serve, and if it is more convenient, you will be more inclined to eat it.”

She added that Big Y wants consumers to know there are healthy foods they can buy that are easy to prepare. They range from sushi to frozen fruit that can be put into smoothies; pre-washed, bagged lettuce and other greens; pre-cut fresh fruit; frozen vegetables in bags; single-cup servings of brown rice; and frozen fish fillets.

Taylor receives up to 50 e-mails each month that contain feedback from customers and questions that range from information about specific food products to how to follow a meal plan after being diagnosed with a disease.

Big Y’s free shopping tours, with themes that range from weight loss to heart health, are popular, and some people attend multiple sessions.

“We can show you ways to eat healthy with foods that are right at your fingertips that you may not have seen before,” Taylor said, adding that people can also learn how to make changes gradually. For example, it’s easy to make a healthy snack by mixing whole-grain cereal with walnuts and raisins, and if children are used to eating sugary cereals, mixing them half-and-half with healthier brands and slowly increasing the amount of the low-sugar cereal can make change easier.

Mazrolle has conducted many tours in Big Y stores, and says people often fail to consider how the food they eat impacts their health.

Tours start in the produce section, where textures, colors, and tastes are abundant. She talks a lot about easy cooking and provides shoppers with simple suggestions, such as sautéing catfish in a pan with olive oil and adding crushed pecans; adding minced and sautéed mushrooms to ground beef in tacos; and putting pre-cut peppers and onions in a pan with chicken or shrimp and adding bottled dressing, herbs, or teriyaki sauce.

Meanwhile, says half of each plateful of food should be filled with fruits and vegetables, and at least half of any grains should be whole; a sweet tooth can be satisfied with a fresh-fruit cocktail or fruit parfait made with yogurt; and a baked apple topped with cinnamon can be a hot, healthy treat.

Learning Curve

McAndrew said people with diabetes should stay away from foods with added sugars because they have no nutritional value and can cause blood sugar to rise.

Also, individuals with heart disease need to watch their intake of saturated fat because it contributes to blockage of the arteries, and should instead choose cuts of meat that are lean.

It can be difficult to alter your shopping habits if you are diagnosed with one of these conditions, but small changes, such as noting the sodium content listed on food labels, can make a big difference over a lifetime.

“Everyone is tempted by different foods, but there are a lot of components to healthy shopping. Most people like textures, flavors, and taste, which is the reason they eat too much of foods like ice cream. But it’s possible to be satiated with less if there is fiber in the food,” McAndrew said, adding that sprinkling nuts on ice cream makes it a lot more filling.

However, reducing sodium intake is one of the most difficult changes to make, so McAndrew suggests doing it gradually. “You’re more apt to be successful if you take small steps, which is especially important if you have been eating a high-fat, high-sodium diet. Salt is a flavor enhancer, so it’s in almost everything, and going without it is one of the hardest things for our taste buds to adapt to,” she explained.

Curbing cravings for foods loaded with sugar can also be difficult, but, again, it’s a matter of making small changes.

Another obstacle to healthy eating is the time it takes to prepare nutritious food. But grocery stores have begun catering to people with busy schedules, and shelves contain pre-cut fruits and vegetables, bagged salad greens which often come with dressing, and pre-roasted chickens that are easy to serve and a much better choice than fried chicken or frozen chicken nuggets.

“I always look for the best alternative when I shop,” McAndrew said. “There is a lot more information out there than there used to be, and it’s worth taking the time to go on a supermarket tour.”

She suggests making a menu at the beginning of each week and sticking to it; the menu doesn’t have to be detailed, but it can help guide decisions during the week, and giving children choices and having them cook alongside you can inspire them to change their eating habits.

McAndrew says parents often bake cookies with their children, but making homemade chicken nuggets or soup, which can be frozen into individual portions, can capture their interest and lead them to make healthy choices.

What children drink is also important: the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends giving them water or milk rather than juice.

“Studies have shown that children who exhibit poor growth are often filling up on juice that takes away their appetite,” Serafino-Cross said. “Parents think they are buying something that is healthy, but juice is not needed in a diet.”

Ongoing Change

Taylor says the best intentions often go awry, but every day is an opportunity for a fresh start.

“Big Y’s philosophy is to help people reach their goals by making one small change at a time. We don’t have diet sheets or tell people, ‘eat this, but don’t eat that,’”she said. “We meet shoppers where they are, and if you are willing to shift the way you spend your money, it can make a real difference in your health.”

With obesity on the rise, it can also make a difference in your waistline, how you feel, and the number of visits you pay to the doctor in the future.

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