By Ashley Thompson
Dietitian Anne Marie Armstrong often jokes most people can go grocery shopping with their eyes closed. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
“What I mean by that is a lot of us buy the same food over and over and over again,” Armstrong explained during a healthy eating tour of the Windsor Superstore March 13.
“When you’re trying to eat healthier the best place to start is to re-evaluate the foods you commonly buy,” the Loblaw Atlantic employee said.
Know what to cut
Armstrong says label literate grocery shoppers can use the fact panels on food packages to decide which products to stick with, what foods should only be consumed in small doses and which popular picks should be left out of the cart all together.
“Understand what the fact panels mean and how the numbers relate to your needs,” she said.
Armstrong recommends using the percentage of daily value information at the right side of nutrition fact panels to assess everyday foods and choose items that fit your nutritional needs.
“Normally 15 per cent is the benchmark for high, and five per cent is the benchmark for low,” she said.
Shoppers should look for products that provide at least 15 per cent of their daily value of healthy line items, such as calcium, iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and fibre. High-fibre foods – nuts, rice, cereal and pasta - make people feel full longer while helping to regulate blood sugar levels, she added.
Buyers should beware of products containing more than five per cent of the recommended daily intake of sodium, saturated fats, trans fats or sugar in one serving – especially if the serving size listed is much smaller than what would typically be consumed in one sitting.
Some manufacturers will try to make a product look healthier than it actually is by listing unrealistic serving sizes, Armstrong said. This practice, she noted, is common with condiments and processed meats.
Fats: the good, the bad, the balancing act
Armstrong said the magic number women can use to evaluate their total daily fat intake is 50 grams – and the majority of fats consumed should fall into the healthy fat category.
“People are getting too much total fat and too much unhealthy fat,” Armstrong said.
“Too much fat can increase our risk for heart disease.”
Saturated and trans fats raise LDL-cholesterol levels. According to Health Canada’s website, saturated fats are commonly found in animal meats, coconut, dairy products, lard and shortening.
High levels of trans fats in a diet can reduce good cholesterol levels and increase a person’s risk of heart disease. Health Canada allows manufacturers to advertise products that are low in saturated fats, and contain less than 0.2 grams of trans fats, as fat free.
Armstrong said it is fine to indulge in high-fat treats once a week, but recommended keeping the fat content per serving in the single digits more often than not. She listed avocados, fish, ground flax seeds and unsaturated vegetable oils as sources of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for many normal body functions.
Ideally, Armstrong said a person should work fish into his or her diet at least twice a week to get a good Omega-3 fix on a regular basis.
A quick way to cut unhealthy fats from an everyday feeding routine, she added, is to buy products with lower portions of milk fat. Use skim milk when possible, look for low-sugar, artificially-sweetened yogurts with two per cent milk fat or less, and choose low-fat cheese products containing less than 22 per cent milk fat.
What to look for in the store
Choosing skinless chicken, leaner cuts of meat, flavouring food with spices and herbs and avoiding processed meats can work wonders for people aiming to cut fat, sodium and calories out of their diets, Armstrong says.
It’s about knowing how to read the labels to be able to identify the healthier foods in that category - Anne Marie Armsrtong
Fruits and veggies that are dark in colour – green or orange – boost antioxidants, while leaner cuts of meat can be excellent sources of B12. In breads, Armstrong said the healthiest loafs have whole grains listed as the first ingredient.
She said calorie needs vary according to a person’s physique and fitness level, but a relatively inactive adult woman, for example, requires about 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day.
“Try not to get a big chunk of your calories in one food,” Armstrong warns.
“Liquid calories don’t keep us full the same way solid calories do. Be mindful of how many calories you’re drinking.”
Sugar-added juices are loaded with calories, she said, and some people consume nearly 50 per cent of the calories they need in one day by the time they’ve had a glass of juice for breakfast and downed a coffee on their way to work.
When it comes time to plan out a meal, Armstrong says shoppers should be aware the healthier choices are seldom found in the centre aisles of the grocery store, where a lot of the ready-in-minutes products on the shelves are laden with sodium and preservatives.
“Don’t use a lot of packaged food at one time.”
Armstrong said she avoids pairing two boxed items in one meal. Instead, she will add healthy alternatives to the mix.
“It’s about knowing how to read the labels to be able to identify the healthier foods in that category.”
Armstrong said label literate shoppers have the tools for healthy eating at their fingertips – they just have to use them.