A Practical Guide to Navigating Any Grocery Store

Let’s face it, our culture has created an environment that is not conducive for those of us looking to optimize the health of ourselves and our families. There is no better example of this blatant disregard for human health than the layout and products available in (most) grocery stores. Now, before I go off on my rant, please note that I am not referring to your local organic grocer, Trader Joes, or Whole Foods in this post (although much of this post can be applied to these stores as well). This post is aimed at helping you better understand where to locate the healthiest items in whatever grocery store you have available to you. I believe you should know where and how to locate the most nutritious foods available to you. Ultimately, grocery shopping should not be something you fear, we have enough to worry about on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s begin by looking at the layout of your typical grocery store:

Grocery Store Diagram.png

Okay yes I realize that not every grocery store will have this layout, but for the most part this is what you can expect to find in the majority of stores. Looking at the diagram, you will see a pattern that you probably already know (or have heard), which is to avoid the internal sections of the store. This advice usually comes via friends who say things like “Avoid the middle aisles!” or “Don’t ever leave the perimeter of the grocery store” or even worse, “The aisles make you fat!”, to name a few. While this advice isn't terrible, I think we’ve taken the idea a bit too far, hence the (mostly) on the diagram. I certainly agree that the majority of the best foods are on the perimeter of the store, but I don’t think you need to view the aisle sections as jail (as depicted jokingly in the image). More importantly, there is some complete garbage on the perimeter of the store too! To further dissect this issue and help you navigate the store, I’ve compiled a list of 1) healthy items you can find in the aisles and 2) unhealthy items located on the perimeter.

Healthy Food Items Often Located in The Aisles-

1) Nut Butters- Assuming the nut-butter contains no vegetable oils or added sugar, these items can serve as a great tool in your diet. I prefer almond, cashew, or sunflower butter, as these also contain some essential fatty acids and a moderate amount of protein.

2) Olives, Canned Artichokes, and Other Canned Organic Items- I make a massive salad for lunch most days. Olives are one of my favorite additions, as well as artichokes and sun dried tomatoes. Further, capers and other items that add flavor and nutrients to a meal are often located in the aisles.

3) Ghee, Avocado Oil, Olive Oil- I plan to do a post on choosing cooking fats, but for now just know that these are often in the aisles.

4) Herbs, Spices, and Some Condiments- Herbs and spices add a tremendous amount of nutrition and flavor to meals. Condiments like sugar-free ketchup, stone ground mustard, and fermented sauerkraut are also located in the aisles.

Unhealthy Food Items Often Located on the Perimeter-

1) Yogurt- My estimate is that 80% of yogurt products in the store are unhealthy. Why? Mostly due to added sugar. If you want yogurt, get plain greek yogurt or a dairy-free alternative with no added sugar.

2) Processed meats, cheeses, and certain dairy products- Deli meats, hot dogs, ultra-pasteurized milks and cheeses? No thank you!

3) Frozen dinners and deserts- Most frozen dinners have enough sodium to last you a week, plus vegetable oils and added sugars. Dessert items like ice creams, frozen yogurts, and all of the other heavily processed junk items should be mostly avoided in my opinion.

4) Prepared Food Items- This is a big one for me as this can trick many well-intentioned individuals. Almost every hot bar, salad bar, or prepared foods section I’ve ever encountered (including Whole Foods), contains products that are prepared with industrial seed oils, canola oil, or heavily processed vegetable oils. While this is unfortunate, it is the truth. If you don’t believe me, look at the labels of the food items at the next hot bar you encounter (if they are shown).

To summarize, there are plenty of healthy options in most grocery stores. While the advice to shop mostly on the perimeter is warranted, just know that you can find some great items on the interior and some terrible items on the exterior. Create a healthy list that works for you and your family and stick to it!