What’s important to keep in mind is that we’re all different when it comes to nutrition. Our nutritional needs, activity levels, health conditions, stressors, environments, and budgets are specific to us, which is a detail that is often missed by the rules set in place by diet culture. For that reason, we spoke with two registered dietitians to compile a list of the top bogus nutrition rules that can and should be ignored when food shopping, as well as tips on how to approach the grocery store aisles in a way that allows for more flexibility.
9 nutrition rules to ignore during your next grocery shopping trip
1. Only shop the perimeter of the store
The idea behind this rule is based on how most grocery stores are structured, with the perimeter stocking perishable foods—produce, meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and other refrigerated goods—and the inside of the store having shelf-stable processed foods.
The reason experts believe this rule should be ignored is simple: The inside of grocery stores have great options that don’t need to be avoided. “Foods that are found in the center aisles, such as canned veggies or fish, can be a great, nutritious, and budget-friendly option [compared to fresh produce],” says Colleen Christensen, RD, a registered dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating and founder of No Food Rules.
The center aisles are also filled with everyday staples that can complement perishable foods or serve as nutritious snacks. “Keeping snack foods like crackers and granola bars around helps you feed yourself throughout the day, [while] ingredients like rice and pasta are good, inexpensive staples to build meals around and canned foods like beans and tuna are great inexpensive protein sources,” shares Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, a Raleigh-based dietitian who specializes in eating disorders. “The ‘only shop the perimeter’ rule can also lead to cooking fatigue, as preparing everything from scratch all the time is exhausting and unrealistic.”
So while the perimeter of the store can have your favorite grocery staples, both experts advise taking a stroll through the middle aisles to find even more nutritious options.
2. Don’t buy ingredients you can’t pronounce
If you’ve read a nutrition label recently, you may have seen a few ingredients that aren’t the easiest to pronounce. Oftentimes, chemicals found in foods that are hard to pronounce are deemed as “bad” by social media standards, however, this isn’t something Christensen believes should be focused on during grocery trips.
“Everything that we eat is made up of chemicals and if you saw the chemicals or ‘ingredients’ of a banana, most of us couldn’t pronounce much of it,” Christensen says. “Rather than avoiding ingredients you can’t pronounce, it's best to aim to include a variety of food types into your diet.”
3. Only buy foods with less than five ingredients
In the past few decades, there’s been various rules suggesting we should solely buy food items with short ingredient lists, but both experts agree this is an oversimplified way to think about food. “The idea behind this rule is that the more simple a food is, the better, [but] this is not always the case,” Christensen says. “A variety of ingredients may be added to a food for different reasons such as to preserve freshness, and the preservatives commonly used in foods are regulated and generally recognized as safe [to consume].”
Only buying foods with less than five ingredients can also limit the list of foods viewed as “acceptable,” which can make it harder to get a diverse group of foods. Byrne adds, “you’ve probably made many tasty, nutritious recipes that have way more than five ingredients before, so why stick to this arbitrary rule when grocery shopping?” The world won’t flip upside down if you purchase a food item with more than five ingredients, so both experts recommend tossing this rule in the trash.
4. Always pick the option with the least added sugar
While Byrne does point out how too much sugar can have a negative impact on your health, that doesn’t mean you should reject every food that contains added sugar. “Manufacturers add just a little bit of sugar—a few grams per serving—to drastically improve a product’s taste, [so] there’s no reason to stop buying your favorite tomato sauce, whole wheat bread, or salad dressing because of a few grams of added sugar, because this really won’t make any difference in your overall health,” she says.
The added bit of sweetness to your food can increase your satisfaction when eating, which Christensen shares can help you tune into your body’s cues. One example she shares is having a protein-packed Greek yogurt that has a hint of sweetness to it: The Greek yogurt offers tons of nutrients, but also has a slightly sweet taste to satisfy your taste buds and increase your satisfaction. She adds, “our enjoyment with food matters, too!” Say that again for the people in the back.
5. Limit packaged food purchases
Not only does diet culture give processed foods a bad reputation, packaged foods are also on the list. However, Christensen believes this rule doesn’t hold up like the rule on shopping the perimeter of the grocery store rule. “Packaged foods can be a great, nutrient-dense option and have a longer shelf life,” she shares. “Both processed foods and packaged foods can contribute to someone consuming a more nutrient-dense diet by including processed foods into their diet that are convenient for them.”
This is especially true if cooking a home cooked meal from scratch isn't in the cards for you due to a busy week or simply not wanting to. “We all have limited time, and it’s fine to buy things that make your life easier,” adds Byrne. “Don’t stress about buying pre-made soup or tomato sauce instead of making your own, or about buying pre-cut fruits or vegetables if you’re more likely to eat them when they’re sold this way.” Both options offer convenience, as well as the nutrients non-packaged foods offer, which is why packaged foods can be great additions to your grocery shopping list.
6. Avoid frozen or canned produce; fresh is always best
It would be great to have access to fresh produce at all times, but that may not be the case and Christensen doesn’t believe it’s something to feel guilty about. Even though diet culture views fresh produce as the golden child of all produce, Christensen affirms frozen or canned produce are just as great. “When you get down to it, the nutrient difference is very small and can actually be higher in the non-fresh options,” she adds.
Byrne highlights how frozen options can have just as many nutrients as their fresh counterparts because they’re frozen at peak freshness. Plus, they can be great options for when cooking a meal from scratch just isn’t in the cards. “Frozen prepared foods, like frozen meals, are great for when you’re rushed, don’t feel like cooking, or don’t have fresh ingredients on hand,” she adds. “There are loads of nutritious frozen meal options these days that contain a mix of protein, carbs, and fat, and contain at least a full serving of vegetables.”
The best way to go is with whatever works best for your life—whether it be fresh, frozen, canned, or a combination of all three.
7. Stick to the “clean 15” and avoid the “dirty dozen”
You may have heard of the dirty dozen or clean 15, which are two lists made by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that share which produce are the most and least likely to be contaminated by pesticides. Christensen explains that these lists compare levels of pesticide residue on produce and states which produce are contaminated with pesticides the least and considered “clean,” while those with the highest are considered “dirty.” Those deemed as “dirty” are generally recommended to buy organic to reduce pesticide consumption, but Christensen shares how these lists can be both misleading and cause unnecessary fear towards food.
“The residues found on produce are typically well below the levels deemed safe for consumption,” Christensen says. “This rule [can be] harmful because it may cause someone to not consume a fruit or vegetable because purchasing organic is outside of their means, when a non-organic fruit or veggie is just fine!” Additionally, she adds that not purchasing organic may leave more of your budget to spend on produce overall, which can help you consume a variety of them more.
Buying conventional produce won’t cause any harm—Christensen simply recommends cleaning your produce before consuming to properly clean it.
Learn more about the dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists in this video:
8. Never buy your “trigger foods”
Trigger foods are considered foods that can trigger strong cravings that are difficult to ignore. “For too long, conventional wisdom has been that if you can’t ‘control’ yourself around a certain food, you shouldn’t keep it in the house,” says Byrne. “That might seem to make sense on the surface, but the truth is that by not keeping the food around, you’re reinforcing the false belief that there’s something magical about the food and you can’t be trusted around it.”
In Byrne's experience, she’s noticed how most people are better off stocking up on foods considered triggering versus not having them in the house at all. “At first, you might find yourself overeating, but you’ll soon find that because they’re always available to you, you’ll crave them less often and even forget that they’re there.” However, only you can decide what route makes the most sense for you.
9. Read every label on food
It’s true that reading the label on food can help you better understand which nutrients are in food and if there are ingredients you’re allergic to, but Byrne doesn’t believe you should scour every label at the grocery or stress on which brand you’re buying. “The differences between brands are often negligible, so unless you have an allergy and have to avoid certain ingredients, you’re better off just buying the product that you like the most,” she says.
Additionally, Christensen advises being wary of labels that include the words "clean," "superfood," or "fit." “Many times, these are marketing tactics and unregulated terms that carry no true meaning and are simply intended to raise the perceived value of a product in order to raise the price,” she shares.
How to approach grocery shopping in a healthy way, according to RDs
Grocery shopping shouldn’t be anxiety-inducing or dictated by tons of rules, but one thing Christensen does advise is remembering that variety is key. Instead of focusing on what diet culture tells you to remove or avoid at all costs, she suggests shifting your mindset on what to add that can help consume a variety of foods to get a wide range of nutrients. “Everyone has different life circumstances and what is feasible for one person grocery shopping may not be feasible for another,” she adds. So if your favorite influencer is shopping at the farmers market and only opting for organic produce, that doesn’t mean you have to do the same to have a healthy diet.
“If you see something that looks great to you, it’s okay to buy it or adjust your plan if the store is out of something you need for a recipe you have planned,” says Byrne. The key is allowing flexibility instead of rigid rules created by the diet industry. “Diet culture sets unrealistic expectations about how we should be feeding ourselves. The vast majority of us don’t have the time or energy to cook everything from scratch or read every label.”
One tip Byrne shares is reminding yourself that you deserve to enjoy what you eat if you feel any guilt about buying certain foods. You can also focus on how certain foods make your body feel and which bring you the most joy when planning your grocery list. “When I work with my clients, I always encourage them to think about how different foods may make their body feel and what foods they enjoy consuming versus allowing a label to solely dictate their choices,” agrees Christensen. So the next time you’re planning on getting groceries, focus less on what you think you should do and do more on what feels good to you.
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