April 08, 2009

Careful grocery shopping essential for your health

Is grocery shopping an art or a science? Perhaps it is more like puzzle, where the pieces never fit together just right; or maybe a video game, in which the forces of evil lure you to spend more money on foods that are less than nutritious.

All I know is that it can be tricky to find healthy food that you really want to eat, especially if you do not have much time or prefer not to be seen using a calculator in the aisles.

Frances Jamison is on a mission to change people's grocery habits, to make healthy eating more of an adventure and less of a chore. She is a Registered Dietician at Headwaters Health Centre in Orangeville, and she was at Erin's Valu Mart store last week leading an educational Supermarket Scavenger Hunt.

"The choice of food is a very personal and cultural thing," she said, while analyzing the results of the hunt (I did OK, except I had no idea about prebiotics). "We are very lucky in this country – we have so much choice."

If you want to go the more scientific route, you can learn the ideal amounts of calories, fats, carbs and proteins you should aim for in your diet, based on your age and sex. The Nutrition Facts label on manufactured foods gives you actual amounts for servings, and what percentage of your recommended daily intake that represents.

Even if you are not doing exact calculations, be aware that the daily values are based on a person eating 2,000 calories a day. So if a serving is said to give you 20 per cent of your day's fat, it will only be about 13 per cent if you normally consume 3,000 calories a day.

But enough with the math. I prefer the nice, simple suggestions in Canada's Food Guide, such as: "Have breakfast every day" or "Eat at least one dark green and one orange vegetable each day." Not that I always do it, but at least I can easily remember it and do it if I choose.

Then there are the big three: fat, sugar and salt. Not that they are bad, but most people take in too much, especially from foods in which these ingredients are added to boost flavour and texture. In general, the more highly-processed and convenient the product, the more likely it is to be loaded with stuff you do not need.

Better to buy your food naked and dress it up yourself (the food being naked, not you). That brings up the culture of cooking – making time to shop well, then planning meals with healthy ingredients. It is a skill and habit worth fostering in our children.

Sometimes the things that seem to make our lives more enjoyable are the ones we are told to have infrequently, in very small quantities, like cake, pastries, chocolates, cookies, granola bars, doughnuts, muffins, ice cream, french fries, chips, pop, fruit-flavoured drinks and alcohol.

The payoffs of the discipline are huge, but can only be felt over a longer time: healthy weight, stronger muscles and bones, more energy, looking better, and lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and various forms of cancer.

Taking care of ourselves, and not taking the easiest ways of satisfying our hunger, does not have to be a complex project. Once you have set some goals, it is a matter of comparing packages in the store and going for products with lower saturated fat, lower sodium, higher fibre, and especially for those over 50, more calcium.

Dieticians say we should not go on "unbalanced" diets, including high-protein plans, and that most vitamin supplements should not be necessary.

"Eat a wide variety of foods, and you don't have to worry. You will get all your essential nutrients," said Jamison. The few exceptions in Canada's Food Guide are a multivitamin with folic acid for women of child-bearing age, and a vitamin D supplement for everyone over 50.

Check out the Guide for new food ideas, try the interactive tools and learn more about a healthy lifestyle at:

Remember, too, that putting good food on the table is an extra challenge for families with a limited income. Support the East Wellington Community Services Foodshare Program with food donations right at the grocery store, or call 519-833-9696.