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A woman looks at a carton of eggs in a grocery store.

Turn on the local news, page through a magazine or scan a Web site, and you’re bound to be inundated with nutritional advice. The problem is that much of this advice sounds like abstract dictums — “Eat healthier!” “Make nutritious choices!” — that aren’t very helpful at the grocery store, where you’re faced with an empty cart and lots of tough calls.

To help us navigate this dilemma, five well-respected nutrition experts have graciously allowed us to (figuratively speaking) tag along on a routine shopping trip. They answered all kinds of questions about their personal grocery-buying habits, which we hope will provide some helpful inspiration and guidance on your next trip to the store.

Here’s our team (from top to bottom):

  • Liz Lipski, PhD, clinical nutritionist and the author of Digestive Wellness (McGraw-Hill, 2005), lives in Asheville, N.C.
  • Kathie Swift, MS, RD, nutrition director at the UltraWellness Center, lives in Pittsfield, Mass.
  • David Katz, MD, public health professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, lives in New Haven, Conn.
  • Margaret Wittenberg, global vice president of Whole Foods Market and author of New Good Food (Ten Speed Press, 2008), lives in Fredericksburg, Texas.
  • Rory Freedman, devoted vegan, self-taught nutrition buff and coauthor of Skinny Bitch in the Kitch (Running Press, 2007), lives in Los Angeles.

Stop No. 1 — Produce Section

For our crew of nutrition experts, the produce section is where the action is. Swift estimates that $50 of her $70 weekly food budget is spent on fresh produce — most of it certified organic and purchased at the supermarket and natural foods store close to her house. Freedman, too, is a produce fiend. Each week, she takes home a head of garlic, three or four zucchini, a bunch of kale, two bunches of celery, four or five cucumbers, one bunch of carrots, one head of red cabbage, one package of spinach, one package of mixed greens, one bunch of scallions, three tomatoes, four or five avocados, four apples, two oranges, two mangoes, two peaches, two young coconuts, two limes, two lemons, one bunch of bananas, one box of raspberries, one box of blueberries, and one box of strawberries. Whew! And all of that is just for her.

Katz uses an entire bag of prewashed organic mixed greens for his dinner salad. “I never met a leaf of lettuce I didn’t like,” he says gleefully.

Swift lets her senses guide her, knowing that the most vibrant and beautiful fruits and vegetables are the ones most likely in season. “There’s a reason the apples look so amazing in fall, and the strawberries so succulent in May,” she says. She also shops by color, making sure that her cart includes all the color groups — from dark green (arugula, bok choy, chard) to red-blues (berries, red cabbage, radicchio) to yellow-oranges (peaches, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe) and whites (garlic, cauliflower, potatoes).

Wittenberg generally knows what she needs when she walks through those sliding grocery-store doors, but she loves getting distracted in the produce aisle and letting her impulses take over. “The other day, the produce section had radicchio di Treviso, which I had never seen before, and I said to myself, ‘Oh, I gotta try that,’” she says. If she splurges on a decadent treat, this is where it happens. “We hadn’t planned it, but the other day my husband picked up some organic cherries that were just awesome.”

Produce-section tip: Pesticide levels vary among fresh produce. If you can afford to buy only some organically grown items, prioritize those that, when grown conventionally, are treated most heavily with pesticides and herbicides: lettuce, spinach, celery, red peppers, potatoes, apples, strawberries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, grapes and pears.

Stop No. 2 — Bulk Section

The bulk section is a great source of affordable healthy-eating inspiration — just one of many reasons that Wittenberg, who keeps more than 100 neatly labeled jars in her pantry, loves to linger in the bulk section. She’s also an avid shopper of interesting lentils and beans. “French lentils, black beluga lentils, Spanish lentils — we eat a different kind of lentil at least twice a week.”

Swift favors red quinoa, black rice, wild rice, amaranth, kasha and milled flaxseed. And Katz gets a range of bulk dried fruit, as well as raw almonds, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds — all of which go into the insulated “snack pack” he carries everywhere he goes. “I think of my snack pack as a kind of umbrella in a hostile nutritional environment,” he says.

Bulk-section tip: Look for unsulphured brands of dried fruits — they don’t look as pristine and they don’t keep as long, but they have no sulfites, a preservative that many people find disturbing to the digestive system.

Stop No. 3 — Center Aisles

Bad reputation notwithstanding, the center aisles do contain their share of worthy items — if you know what you’re looking for and can steer clear of temptation. Swift, for example, does a center-aisle sweep for condiments and assorted staples: sea salt, peppercorns, hot sauce, honey, pure mulberry and maple syrups, chili paste, cans of beans, tomato paste, jarred artichoke hearts, tamari, Pacific vegetable broth, all-fruit preserves, canned salmon in water or olive oil, bags of brown rice, buckwheat pasta, steel-cut oats from Bob’s Red Mill, Arrowhead Mills’s gluten-free baking mix, and organic peanut, almond and cashew butters. She picks up a range of oils — extra-virgin olive oil, sesame oil and walnut oil — as well as ume plum, apple cider and balsamic vinegars for homemade salad dressings.

Her cart has room for a few snacks, too: organic popcorn, whole-grain crackers, LÄRABAR or Pure energy bars, Sami’s Bakery millet-flax pita chips, and organic blue corn chips. (For more on how Swift investigates packaged goods, see her “Dirty Dozen,” below.)

Freedman buys loaves of sprouted whole-grain bread and whole-grain pasta. Wittenberg stocks up on kamut, spelt and sourdough rye breads, and a variety of unconventional pastas made from udon, mugwort soba and corn. She also chooses jars of applesauce, cherry butter, sesame tahini, almond butter and apple butter. Lipski looks for canned tomatoes, packages of oatmeal, and Real Foods’ gluten-free Corn Thins (she likes them spread with a little real butter for a snack). Katz eats a mix of whole-grain cereals with fresh raspberries and blueberries every morning. “I love Nature’s Path, but I’m also a fan of Ezekiel’s cereal, Kashi, and anything else with limited additions of sugar and salt,” he says.

Center-aisles tip: Most boxed cereals, crackers and other snacks are chock-full of refined flours and sweeteners and low in fiber. Look for brands with only whole-food
ingredients and at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.

Stop No. 4 — Refrigerated Section

After cruising the middle aisles, Wittenberg stops at the dairy section. She picks up plain, organic, full-fat goat yogurt and eats some of it for breakfast almost every morning. Lipski, too, is a yogurt fanatic: She eats a small bowl of plain kefir or plain yogurt with fresh fruit and homemade granola most mornings. Swift picks up plain, organic soy yogurt, as well as organic soy, rice or almond beverages, omega-3 organic eggs, and extra-firm organic tofu. For Wittenberg, tofu and tempeh are essential grocery items; she eats them at least four times a week. “Tempeh has a wonderful texture that’s great in things like stir-fries with fresh veggies and a gingery sauce,” she says.

These folks mostly ignore the refrigerated juices. “Occasionally, I’ll pick up a little pure cranberry juice from the middle shelves, but that’s pretty rare,” says Lipski. Swift takes a similar approach. She buys pomegranate juice, but it’s more to splash in sparkling water for a little punch than for drinking straight down. The reason: too much concentrated sugar. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids as old as 18 should not drink more than 12 ounces of juice a day.

Katz likes a glass of juice after his morning workout. “I’m crazy about the Bolthouse Farms passion fruit blend,” he says. “Nothing seems to hit the spot quite like that juice after I’ve been on the elliptical.”

Refrigerated-section tip: Beware the wide selection of  over-sugared juices, flavored yogurts and novelties. Seek out plain, minimally processed options — and always read ingredient labels.

Stop No. 5 — Meat and Cheese Counter

Lipski and Swift are the biggest meat buyers in this group, and they are picky. Lipski looks for organic-certified, free-range chicken; wild-caught fish; and organic turkey bacon, which she uses to make lunchtime BLTs. Swift picks up Plainville Farms turkeys, organic chicken breasts and bison meat for burgers. “Bison is lower in fat but has a really nice flavor,” she says.

At the cheese counter, Wittenberg almost always buys an artisanal, aged cheese, like a small-production cheddar, which she toasts on rye bread and serves with lettuces and radishes for lunch.

Meat-and-cheese-section tip: “All-natural” meats and cheeses are not necessarily from grass-fed, free-range or organically raised animals. Read labels carefully, do your homework on suppliers — and when in doubt, ask.

Stop No. 6 — Frozen Section

Swift heads to the frozen section for berries, edamame, and Sami’s Bakery gluten-free bread and wraps. Wittenberg prefers frozen fish to fresh fish because, well, it’s often fresher. “Fresh fish takes at least two days to get to the fish counter, but frozen fish is actually frozen on ship.”

Swift also keeps fish and shrimp in the freezer, along with Sunshine Burgers — veggie patties made with sunflower seeds. “I like those for breakfast, with a dollop of salsa,” she says.

Frozen-section tip: Freezing has a negligible effect on the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables, but look for certified organic brands with single ingredients that don’t have any added sugar or preservatives.

Putting It All Together

Once our astute shoppers get all their goodies home, they keep preparation pretty basic: a piece of grilled tilapia with citrus glaze, a vegetable, a salad and maybe a side of bulgar wheat is a typical dinner at Katz’s house. Lipski likes to make brown rice and dal, an Indian lentil dish, which takes less than 30 minutes if she puts everything in to soak in the morning.

Stir-fries are also popular with this group — as are most simple dishes that allow high-quality ingredients to do the work for them. It really doesn’t have to be more complicated than that, Lipski says. “We are so spoiled with such an amazing variety of beautiful foods. Just take a few deep, relaxing breaths and enjoy the experience.”

Dirty Dozen

Kathie Swift, MS, RD, nutrition director at the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass., reads the ingredient lists on all the packaged foods she buys. If she sees any of the following, it stays on the shelf.

  • Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Artificial colorings
  • Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharin
  • BHA or BHT
  • Monosodium glutamate
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein or autolyzed yeast extract
  • Potassium bromate
  • Propyl gallate
  • Sulfites
  • Sodium nitrate
  • Sodium benzoate or benzoic acid

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