When it comes to healthy grocery shopping — our modern version of hunting and gathering — it can be a jungle out there.
"No trans fats!'' screams a bag of potato chips, as if they've magically been turned into health food. "Whole grains!'' proclaims your kid's favorite cereal, though it's just as sugar-laden as it ever was.
It's enough to make a harried shopper fill the cart with whatever looks familiar and flee as quickly as possible.
Melissa Gallagher says you can conquer the supermarket.
Gallagher, founder and owner of Healthy Being Wellness Boutique in St. Petersburg, regularly takes her clients and interested customers on weekly walking tours of local supermarkets, pointing out the pitfalls of poor choices.
Gallagher became interested in nutrition in 2000 when she was diagnosed with a serious case of mononucleosis and Epstein-Barr Syndrome. "It was debilitating," she said. "My doctor said I should drink more water and take vitamin C."
Gallagher took matters into her own hands. Already having earned a double major in history and literature at Florida State University, Gallagher decided to pursue a master's degree in holistic nutrition at Clayton College of Natural Health in Alabama. Now she helps others navigate miles of grocery aisles. Come along on a recent tour.
look before you shop
But first, let's tour your own pantry, fridge and freezer. She calls it "shopping in your own home," and says if you hunt through carefully, you're likely to find the basics of tonight's dinner.
Besides, how many of us have filled our fridges with duplicates (some of which have gone bad before we could use them) because we didn't look before we shopped?
Next step: Map out what you need before you get into the car and stick to the list once you get to the store. Your wallet and your waist will thank you.
"First, have a plan," Gallagher said on a recent day as her group walked past a display of buy-one-get-one-free Hostess mini doughnuts. "Make out your grocery list and go in focused."
And make sure you eat something before stepping into the store. "That will help you cut down on impulse buys.'' Like, perhaps, doughnuts.
"That really is a big one — don't shop on an empty stomach," agreed Niki Middlekauff, a registered dietitian at Bayfront Medical Center. "Otherwise, you'll end up buying way more than you need to."
Another crucial strategy, both nutritionists say, is to "shop the perimeter." Grocers stock their healthiest items along the edges of the store. Fruits and vegetables on one side. Dairy on another. Fresh fish and meats on another.
Spend most of your time in the perimeter, especially the produce department, and you'll dodge all kinds of nutritional bombs.
"You want to go with color," Gallagher told her group, scanning the rows of tomatoes, oranges, peppers, carrots, kiwis and zucchinis. "Paint a rainbow with what you're buying."
study the label
Once you leave the safety of the produce aisles, you really need to be careful to read nutrition labels.
"You almost have to be a sleuth," Gallagher said. "It's unfortunate, but you really have to be your own food investigator."
Consider the whole grain, brown sugar and cinnamon Pop-Tart.
"Whole grain" may sound good, but this grab-and-go morning starter has similar calories (200), fat (7 grams) and sugar (14 grams) as a doughnut, Gallagher said.
So read the labels closely, and beware of these common pitfalls:
• Check the serving size. A 20-ounce bottle of tea with 90 calories per serving actually contains 2.5 servings. Drink the whole thing and it's 225 calories. That's doughnut range.
• Beware of words on the label like lean, natural, organic, low-fat and whole grain. Always check the nutrition facts for the fat, salt and sugar that's traveling with those healthy-sounding words.
• Reconsider your assumptions about what's "healthy." Some turkey and chicken products can be high in fat and salt. And some frozen yogurt has as much sugar and fat as ice cream.
• Watch those calories. Reduced-fat products sometimes have as many calories as their regular counterparts because they contain more sugar.
• Watch the salt. Look for items that have 5 percent or less of the recommended daily value of sodium. Be especially careful with canned goods, boxed rice and pasta mixes, snack foods and frozen dinners.
• Watch the sugar. Just 2/3 cup of Kellogg's Low Fat Granola with Raisins has 18 grams of sugar: That's 4 1/2 teaspoons.
• Trans fats. You should avoid these bad actors, but just because the label says "no trans fat," it doesn't mean there aren't other kinds of fat, including the saturated variety.
more for your money
To make the most of your grocery dollar, Middlekauff suggests:
• Buy produce in season to get the best quality and the best value. "A lot of people won't buy fresh fruits and vegetables because they think they're more expensive," Middlekauff said. "But they're not if you buy them in season."
• Make bulk purchases at Sam's Club or Costco and split the large packages with friends or family members. But first, follow the next tip:
• Check the unit price on grocery items to make sure you're getting the best deal — larger isn't always cheaper.
• Build your own "100-calorie packages." Pre-made, "they're twice as much money because you're buying the packaging," Middlekauff said. "You can buy a large pack and break them down into smaller ones yourself."
Logan D. Mabe is a St. Petersburg writer and teacher. He can be reached at email@example.com.