Smart Shopping: Diet-wise grocery shopping strategy and label reading tips

Before you can eat smart, you need to shop smart.  Stocking your pantry, refrigerator and even your freezer with healthy foods is a critical step toward living thin naturally.  But, buyer beware as many supermarkets are not designed with a dieter’s best interest at heart.

To help dieters make smart choices when grocery shopping, consider these diet-wise shopping strategies and label reading tips:

Smart Shopping Tips:

  • Shop with a list, which will structure your shopping and help you avoid impulsive buys that will undermine your efforts.  Create your own list template and make copies to shop with each week. 
  • Cruise the OUTSIDE aisles first:  The freshest food items—produce and dairy, fish and other perishables are located on the perimeter walls of the grocery store. 
  • Start in the produce aisle, and think variety—here you can be flexible—if green beans are on your list this week but the spaghetti squash is on sale and looks fresh, go for it!
  • Find your eggs, tofu and low or fat-free cheese in the dairy aisle.
  • Next, head to fresh meats, fish, and poultry – all varieties of fresh fish top my list; if beef is a must, choose lean cuts such as “loin” and “round”; selections of poultry (eaten skinless) and lean ground turkey breast for burgers, stews and casseroles. 
  • The frozen foods section offers opportunity for economy and convenience. Buy larger-sized packages of flash-frozen produce including un-sauced vegetables and all varieties of fruits. Here you’ll also find flash frozen chicken breasts, filets of fish, and, for those evenings when you just don’t have time to cook, healthy frozen entrees.
  • Finally, venture into the middle of the store, but stick to the list.  This should be a short trip, because you know what you want—and you’re on guard for hype—a label showing waving wheat doesn’t make it “whole wheat”; colorful fruits and vegetables doesn’t always mean there’s good stuff in the package.

Label Reading Tips:

Read the ingredient list first!  Don’t pay attention to the advertising or pretty pictures on the front of the package.  Remember, there is no fruit in Froot Loops—just fruit flavors!  Under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition governs the claims that manufacturers are permitted to print on the labels of packaged foods.  Here are some guidelines:

  • Low calorie = 40 calories or less per serving
  • Fat-free = less than 0.5g fat per serving
  • Low fat = 3g fat or less per serving
  • Reduced fat = 25 percent fewer calories from fat per serving compared to reference food (does NOT necessarily mean low fat!)
  • Low saturated fat = 1g fat or less per serving
  • Lean = fewer than 10g fat, 4.5g saturated fat, and 95mg cholesterol per serving
  • Extra Lean = fewer than 5g fat, 2g saturated fat, and 95mg cholesterol per serving
  • Trans fat-free:  less than 0.5g trans fat per serving (may include hydrogenated fat in the ingredients)
  • Low cholesterol = 20mg or less cholesterol and 2g or less saturated fat per serving
  • Cholesterol-free = 2mg or less cholesterol and 2g or less saturated fat per serving
  • Less cholesterol = 25 percent fewer milligrams cholesterol per serving compared to reference food; 2g or less saturated fat per serving

For more on how to understand and use the nutrition facts label visit

Registered and licensed dietitian Susan Burke March, MS, CDE, is the author ofMaking Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally– a book intended to liberate serial “dieters” and make living healthfully and weight-wise intuitive and instinctual over the long term. She may be reached online at

Also, check out HealthyWage, the website that pays you to be healthy!

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