After indulging during summer vacation, September is the perfect month to get back into healthy eating habits.  The first step to healthy eating is buying healthy foods, so let’s go over 13 essentials for making the right food choices before they even reach your kitchen.

With the abundance of choice and misleading information, grocery shopping can be daunting and overwhelming.  Sure there is the classic rule of never going grocery shopping when hungry but you need more!  Here’s what I suggest …

1. Stick to the produce aisle.  Fresh fruits and vegetables should make up half of your meals. Choose seasonal produce for increased freshness, nutrients and taste.  Forget the canned and boxed foods that are lacking in nutrients and full of salt and preservatives.

2. Fresh is best but it is good to have an emergency stock of fruits and vegetables.  Make sure to choose frozen over canned as these lock in more nutrients and do not contain any unwanted sodium or sugar.

3. Keep a stock of easy-ready protein options for a quick lunch on the go.  This includes canned or preferably glass-jarred beans and fish (i.e. chick peas, white beans, tuna, and sardines).  With these you can always whip up a salad, a protein dip or sandwich with your stock of fresh veggies.

4. Variety is the fruit of life!  Give yourself the goal of trying one new healthy food per week.  Research a tasty-looking recipe that includes this new healthy food you want to try and enjoy a new meal to add to your repertoire.  (Examples: buckwheat flour, millet, a new legume, a new herb….)

5. Buy whole foods: whole grain flour, pasta, rice, nuts, and legumes. Also experiment with home made easy dressings such as oil and vinegar rather than a pre-made salad dressing.

6. Buy plain and season yourself: yogurt, cereal, popcorn, etc…

7. Aim for quality products made with real, fresh ingredients, free of artificial colorings and agents.

8. Buy organic.  On top of being pesticide and GMO-free, organic produce have been shown to contain more antioxidants than non-organic.  If your budget allows, this is a healthier choice.

9. Plan the week’s menu before heading to the store.

10. Make a list.  To avoid diverting from the healthy eating plan and wasting time having to return to the store for forgotten items, make a list.

11. Read ingredients lists: The first item listed is present in the highest quantity and weight.  Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight on the products.

  • Less is more: the shorter the list the better.
  • Watch out for repeat items such as sugar that can come across as a variety of different names: all ‘ose’ ending words, caramel, syrup, malt, sorbitol…
  • Avoid artificial flavors,  hydrogenated oils and trans fats, ingredients that you can’t pronounce and MSGs (listed as: hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast, and sodium caseinate)
  • When ingredients are named under a collective appellation, i.e. vegetable oil, you can assume the lowest quality of oil was used

12. Watch out for misleading food allegations: Being vigilant about food allegations such as ‘low in cholesterol’, ‘low in sodium’, ‘no carbohydrates’ is important as these have the effect of encouraging consumers to buy the product and eat more of it.

Here are a few examples of how food companies trick consumers with their claims:

  • ‘0% fat or cholesterol or carbohydrates’ on foods that naturally do not contain these.
  • ‘sugar-free’ on foods that contain artificial sugars (that are according to many experts worse for health and encourage more weight gain than sugar)
  • ‘Organic’ or ‘Natural’ does not equal healthy
  • Diet or reduced calorie products often contain more artificial agents
  • Wheat bread/pasta/pastries is not equal to whole-wheat
  • Compare labels of foods that claim to be low fat or low sodium. Some foods that make these claims may be higher in these values than the original product.

13. Read the Food Labels

In Canada and in the United States: Health Canada and the FDA have made it relatively easy to evaluate and compare foods in the Nutritional Facts table.  Your first step is to look at the portion being evaluated.  This is another way for food companies to trick consumers as they often make their serving sizes very small.  Serving sizes are also often inconsistent from brand to brand making it challenging to compare products – use a calculator to help you compare.

When you are looking at each evaluated item in the table (calories, fat, fiber) you will see a percentage number on the right, called the percentage Daily Value.  This number corresponds to the average person’s daily needs of this nutrient.  This is meant to give you a general idea of the food’s content, though not extremely accurate because everyone’s needs are different.  An easy way to establish whether it is a good source of a certain nutrient or too high in another is the less than 5% or more than 15% rule (i.e. your chips are too high in fat if they surpass 5% and your nut butter is a good source of iron if it is above 15%.

For more detailed information on the Nutrition Facts table take a look at the following form that can also be a great thing to post on your fridge: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/alt_formats/pdf/label-etiquet/nutrition/cons/fact-fiche-eng.pdf For American specific NF labels go to: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/NFLPM/ucm274593.htm#twoparts

Countries part of European Union: Labels are optional except when nutritional claims are made although some companies voluntarily use them.  The same principal applies: look at the portion being evaluated and see how much the percentage daily value is.

With these tips you are fast on your way to healthy shopping and eating.  Here’s to good healthy eating habits!