Recently a patient asked me for some very basic advice about food shopping. A recent widower with no experience cooking for himself, his diet centered around eating one meal a day at a local diner, with cereal or canned spaghetti representing a special effort at home.
Listen Doc, I’m not looking for a cooking class, but just tell me real quick, what’s the healthiest way to eat? I mean, what do I get at the grocery store?
Knowing his limited culinary ambitions, and his genuine interest in having me cut to the chase, I offered three simple rules for healthy grocery shopping, pared down to the most minimalistic and efficient guiding principles I could think of:
#1. Keep to the outside perimeter.
In the typical store layout, all the refined, processed, packaged, chemical-laden, corporate-engineered food and snacks are stacked in the middle aisles. That’s because in the center aisles, shelf life is long and therefore nutrients are scarce. Along the outside aisles he could range free among the greens, fruits, lean meats and dairy, and avoid yellow #5 in the process!
#2. Load up on plants.
The beautiful thing about rediscovering fruit and vegetables as food is that these can be eaten with minimal preparation, have been engineered naturally by selection over millions of years to be nutritious, and constitute the foundation of healthy eating. Cut up a red pepper and dip into hummus. Spread peanut butter on an organic gala apple. Learn to sauté garlic with greens and a pinch of salt.
#3. Eat as your great-grandparents would eat.
Surging obesity, diabetes, and even cancer rates can at least partially be attributed to a carbohydrate-heavy, over-processed food supply rife with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats, and mystery chemicals. Read the ingredients, and if they weren’t eating it in 1899 then maybe we shouldn’t either.
FYI: Eating Healthy Isn’t Cheap or Easy—But It’s Worth It
The bill might be more expensive to shop this way, especially since low quality coupon foods, frozen franken-dinners, and corn dogs of all shapes and sizes will not make it into this man’s shopping cart… but I think it is better for him to pay on the front end and enjoy the pleasant feeling of a body sustained with real foods, than to see me and all my doctoring friends, with a host of medical problems born of the modern grocery store.
Back in the day we had a tribe to show us how to pick edible mushrooms in the forest, and how to catch fish. Now we have logos and boxes featuring cartoon characters. Most of us have little time or interest in learning about nutrition, and conflicting rules about how to eat healthy.
So these were three simple rules I tried to pass off as good advice, in between my own pressured, manic bites of home-cooked leftovers as my lunch for the day… perhaps better and certainly faster than the local Mc-trough.