Grocery Shopping and Healthy Choices

Grocery shopping is the base for cooking healthfully and eating nutritiously.

Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we’re persuaded by advertisements, branding and labels both in the media as well as by the food labels themselves in the stores.

Just like the mix-mash of information that is available about nutrition these days, there is a wealth of food out there that also claims to be healthy and nutritious. But not all of it is.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when purchasing foods at the grocery store in order to get the most benefit, nutrients and health out of your money and save yourself from purchasing unhealthy food.

1. Does it need an ingredient list?


The best foods to buy really don’t need an ingredient list.

If you’re buying whole foods, the ingredients should be obvious.

When you buy fresh bananas in the store, there is no ingredient list. The dry legumes don’t need an ingredient list because they are simply dried peas, beans or lentils. What does the bag of fresh carrots contain? Carrots, duh.

Consumers know that in terms of added salt, sugar, fat and preservatives, fresh produce has very little.

The majority of your diet should be foods that do not need ingredient lists. Bagged legumes, fresh potatoes, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables should make up the majority of your diet.

While fresh produce does not store for long periods of time potatoes, whole grains and legumes will all be edible for longer periods. Potatoes should be eaten in a few weeks time. Whole grains and legumes can store for months and some for up to a year.

Ideally, the best place to get your produce is from your own garden.

However, that’s not practical for everybody. Not all individuals have the space, time, money or motivation to maintain their own garden.

If space is your only limitation for growing your own produce, I encourage you look up information on a local permaculture organization in your area or Windowfarms ™ . The next best option is visiting a farmers market once a week to stock up on produce. If you have produce stores, that is the next location to look for produce. Supermarkets should be the last option when you look for fresh produce.

2. How far away is the expiration date?

Foods like dry whole grains, lentils, peas and beans will have expiration dates.

Normally, they’re viable for a year after they’re harvested. These types of foods are acceptable to have in your kitchen and pantry.

Expiration dates are not to be feared unless they’re longer than a year away. Frozen dinners, cookies, candy and preserved meats have no place in any healthy kitchen.

Food is meant to deteriorate and break down. If the food you purchase doesn’t spoil, then there is something wrong with the food you’re buying.

I once heard about a turkey that had been left in a freezer for about 20 years. The woman who found the turkey called the company to ask if the turkey was still safe to eat. The representative she talked told her that while the taste may have deteriorated over the years, the turkey was still safe for consumption.


Can you imagine how many preservatives had to have gone into that bird in order to keep is safe for consumption after 20 years? Does that even sound appealing to you?

ingredient list

This can of tomatoes is a good option because it has very few ingredients and has no added salt, sugar or fat.

3. How many ingredients does the product have?

So, your product does has ingredients list.

How many ingredients does it have?

One? Two? Five? Twenty?

I can’t draw a line for how many ingredients is too many ingredients to have in a product. But as I’ve expressed before, if the product doesn’t need an ingredients list, it should be a pretty healthy food.

There are some foods that are not health foods, like oils, that do have simple ingredient lists. But here are some sub-questions related to this topic that you can think about as well:

How many preservatives does it contain and which kinds?

It’s impossible to stay away from all preservatives. I buy canned tomatoes with citric acid added to them. But these aren’t inherently bad.

Preservatives start to become bad when they change the nutritional quality and integrity of our food. While a little added salt and sugar to food is okay, large amounts aren’t good. It’s important to watch out for large amounts of added salts, sugars and fats because they can change how our bodies react to the food we eat.

On the whole, choose foods that are preserved with natural acids like citric acid or ascorbic acid.  Ascorbic acid is also known as Vitamin C. It’s a is a natural preservative.

I advocate for purchasing foods with ascorbic and citric acid over other preservatives. Avoid processed chemicals.

It may be beneficial to look up preservatives if your foods have a wide variety of different preservatives added to them. One of the best general principles to stick to on a whole-foods, plant based diet is the KIS principle: Keep It Simple.

added salt, sugar, fat and nutrients

Notice all the added salt, sugar and fat? In addition, there are also added vitamins, flavorings and unfamiliar ingredients.

Does the product contain added salt, fat or sugar?

Added salts, sugars and fats need to be moderated and limited in a healthy diet.

A good rule to follow is this: if the food in question has fewer milligrams of sodium per serving than calories per serving, it has acceptable sodium levels.

Small amounts of sugar are okay, but stay away from large amounts. An added sugar can be acceptable if it is the last or second-to-last ingredient on the ingredient list.

Added fats add calories without adding nutrition or satisfaction to a meal.

From personal experience, these three additives decrease the enjoyment derived from the natural flavors of whole foods. Avoid them to allow yourself to enjoy food more.

Does the food contain vague or unfamiliar ingredients?

If a food contains ingredients that are vague or difficult to pronounce, it is best to stay away.

These sorts of labels means additives (salt, sugar and fat), preservatives and/or fillers.

Some of the different names for added sugars include

  • anhydrous dextrose
  • malt syrup
  • maltose
  • sucrose
  • fructose
  • lactose
  • crystal dextrose
  • barley malt extract

Also avoid:

  • bleached starch
  • calcium stearate
  • cellulose microcrystalline
  • magnesium stearate

Run far and fast away from these ingredients. They’re all fillers that bulk up food to create more volume. They’re void of nutrition and any health benefit.

4. How much processing has the food undergone?

Overall, the less processed a food, the better it is for you.

Oil, like olive oil or coconut oil are highly processed. They provide very little nutrition and empty calories.

Processed foods are not highly nutritious because processed foods need to be preserved. Conserving food isn’t easy when nutrients need to be preserved. Oftentimes they’re taken out.

This creates a more stable product, but a product that is not very beneficial for humans to eat.

One commonly processed food that is nutritious is cereal, but these nutrients are not natural. These nutrients did not come through with the whole foods to the end, but were added back into the product after being made more stable.

While these added nutrients are better than no nutrition at all, the stable forms can be unhealthy for people when consumed in large amounts.

too many calories from fat

This has too many calories from fat; 45/200= 22.5% of calories come from fat. Try to stay around 10% or less.

5. What percentage of the calories come from fat?

A healthy individual should look to consume 70-80% of his or her calories from carbohydrates.

Only around 10% of calories should come from fat.

When looking at a nutrition label, it’s a good practice to look at how many calories per serving the product contains Then compare that to the number of calories that come from fat.

Without a calculator and just simple math skills, you can quickly estimate what percentage of calories in a food comes from fat. If the percentage is over 15%, I wouldn’t buy that product


Read more about fat in Macronutrients.

6. What are the cholesterol levels?

Unless you have made the decision that you want to consume animal product, the product that you buy should have zero grams of cholesterol.

Cholesterol means that a food item has an animal product in it. Ingesting cholesterol raises cholesterol levels.


  • Updated 3 years ago
Sara Binde

Sara is a health and nutrition coach. She advocates for a whole foods plant-based lifestyle and teaches the world how to achieve weight loss.