Why Dietitians Think the Advice to ‘Only Shop the Perimeter of the Grocery Store’ Is Pretty Bogus

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Among other arbitrary food rules like “pick the option with less fat and less sugar” or “don’t buy foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce,” you may have heard to “only shop the perimeter of the grocery store.” In short, no buying foods or drinks in the aisles (aka, most of the grocery store), just the produce and dairy products against the walls.

But while it’s a fairly popular piece of advice, it’s also one you may want to ignore. According to registered dietitians, the suggestion is just plain wrong for a variety of reasons, from health to ethics to pleasure, and more.

Experts In This Article

Vital nutrients (and delicious tastes) you’ll miss out on if you only shop the perimeter of the grocery store

Skipping or limiting purchases from the aisles means you’re neglecting many key nutrients and bursts of flavor. Let’s break down some of the key examples.

Bread and grains

Brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, oats…these are only a few of all the delicious and valuable sides you wouldn’t get to reap the benefits of and enjoy if you only shop the perimeter of the grocer store. “These foods are rich in fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, and more,” says Chef Vahista Ussery, RDN, the founder and culinary nutrition expert at To Taste.

Brianne Brathwaite, RDN, a HEALer’s Circle member at Project HEAL, adds barley, farro, popcorn, hearty breakfast cereals, bread, pasta, and crackers as other crucial grains. “Cutting these out can cause a lack of B vitamins (folate, niacin, thiamin, peroxide, and riboflavin), vitamin E, vitamin A, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and fiber,” she says.

It would also affect your brain function, she adds, in which case you may feel more fatigued or unable to concentrate.

On that note, did you know your brain and body need more carbs than you’d probably guess? A couple fun facts to illustrate that: Your brain alone needs the equivalent of seven slices of bread a day, and your brain uses about 20 percent of the calories you consume. Without enough carbs, you may experience a host of unpleasant feelings, from irritability to fatigue to difficulty focusing and more.

Oils, full-fat dressing, and vinegar

Ussery says cooking oils, like extra virgin olive oil and canola oil, provide heart-healthy fats and help with satiety.

Along the lines of fats being an important nutrient, get this: Your body needs full-fat salad dressing to reap all the benefits of those veggies. Basically, the fat is needed to absorb the vitamins (and to keep you full and satisfied).

Vinegar is another cooking-must, Ussery adds, when it comes to providing needed acidity and flavor.

Fruits and vegetables

One prime example is canned tomatoes. “Canned tomatoes are not only convenient for cooking, but are also richer in lycopene than their fresh counterparts,” Ussery says. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant linked to cancer prevention, she continues, which is also suggested in research.

The same goes for frozen options. “Frozen fruits and vegetables are at the peak of ripeness, so when compared to produce that travels from faraway places, actually contain higher nutrient levels,” she adds.

Brathwaite says the nutrients include vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are vital for immune function, heart health, and preventing chronic diseases.

Dried fruits are another great go-to snack if you’re in the mood. Ussery says they’re “convenient for grab-and-go, shelf-stable nutrition and for adding to homemade baked goods.” Additionally, she says, they’re rich in various vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting phytonutrients.

Baking ingredients

“For everyone who loves to bake, these ingredients are found in the aisles,” Ussery says, listing whole wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar as examples.

“Homemade baked goods using whole wheat flour provide fiber, healthy fats, phytonutrients, and B vitamins,” she continues. (Yep, even cake can have vitamins!)

Condiments and spices

Spices spice up the nutritional content (and also importantly, the taste) of your meal. They're rich in powerful phytonutrients, too, Ussery notes, that help prevent inflammation. While they do have nutrients, condiments are more for enjoying the food they accompany, she continues—which is also important!

Protein sources

Bring on the beans! “Whether dried or canned, beans are filled with plant-based protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting phytonutrients,” Ussery says.

Nuts, seeds, and nut butters also provided the protein and fat we need, she adds.

Brathwaite points out these foods are also cost-effective options, staples of many cultures, and able to be used flexibly in snacks and meals. (More on this in a bit!)

Nutritionally, fat and protein do a lot for your body, too. Fat is crucial for energy, organ protection, low cholesterol and blood pressure, and more. As far as protein, it’s “essential for muscle repair, hormone production, and maintaining a healthy immune system,” Brathwaite says. Why get your protein from one source when there are so many varied ways to get it, you know?

To be clear, all of this is not to say you have to choose the more nutritious option by any means. Go for what’s best for your budget, taste buds, cultural values, and convenience! This is just to illustrate how unhelpful and inaccurate it is to say people “shouldn’t” shop in the center aisles or buy foods that aren’t “fresh” if they want to be “healthy.”

“Food is more than fuel,” Brathwaite says. “It is culture, family, love, memories, nostalgia, joy, art, and a human right.”

How your health can be negatively affected by skipping out on packaged foods

Without a balanced intake of all the foods (yes, even ice cream!), Brathwaite says, individuals may experience decreased energy levels, mood swings, irritability, and an increased risk of chronic diseases. She explains that deficiencies can affect neurotransmitter function, lead to fatigue, and increase the risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.

Let’s talk examples. Besides what was shared above, here are a few that Maya Feller, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist, shares:

  • Many fiber-rich foods are found in the center of the store. Fiber is needed for gut health, digestion, blood sugar regulation, and balanced lipid levels.
  • Phytonutrients found in frozen vegetables can prevent oxidative damage.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids found in tinned fish, as well as heart-healthy fats found in nuts and seeds, support brain and cardiovascular health.

How only shopping the perimeter of the grocery store intersects with white privilege and marginalization

First, it has roots in racism, as many of the ingredients featured heavily in minority dishes like spices, for example, are located in the middle of grocery stores. As Feller notes and as the Food Research and Action Center states, the people who are most likely to experience food insecurity and poverty are people who are Black, Latinx, or Indigenous.

Further, this food rule excludes all the culturally relevant foods and ingredients found in the international aisle, Brathwaite says.

Back on the note of food insecurity and poverty, think about people with low socio-economic status when they go to the grocery store. Produce is expensive! “While eating fresh fruits and vegetables is recommended, not everyone can afford to eat them,” Ussery says. “If the choice is no fruits or vegetables or canned, we definitely want people to eat canned!”

The same goes for protein sources. Ussery speaks to how people with a limited budget may not be able to afford fresh fish, but possibly could afford canned tuna or canned salmon. “I would not want them to miss out on heart- and brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids thinking these foods are inferior simply for being on an aisle,” she says.

So the perimeter rule isn’t only wrong and unhelpful—it’s also discriminatory. “The assumption that fresh is best when it comes to produce and animal proteins is not only incorrect, it is classist,” Feller says. “It is also an implicit and aggressive way of blaming and shaming people with limited resources for shopping the center of the grocery store while creating a moral hierarchy around food.”

Besides the income factor, other relevant factors include geographic location, time, access, and ability (or desire) to cook. Brathwaite shares the example of long travel times. For people dealing with food insecurity, grocery hauls may need to be smaller or exclude certain foods because they could “go bad” by the time a person gets home or to a working fridge. Those pieces of the puzzle are also valid and shouldn’t be used to shame people or moralize them.

At the same time, Brathwaite notes the importance of remembering that no community is monolithic. “The lack of access doesn’t 100 percent equate to a lack of skill or financial means, although this can be a factor,” she clarifies. “Many marginalized communities contain immigrants from lands where they raised, cultivated, cooked, and enjoyed fresh produce.”

On a less serious note, it’s also okay to shop for the aisle versions because that works better for you for other reasons. “Many patients often report that if it’s difficult or takes time to prepare, they simply won’t eat,” she continues. “I’d rather them purchase pasta and a bag of frozen veggies instead of not eating.”

Without keeping all of this in mind, we’re judging people—and ourselves—for literally no reason. We’re putting up a barrier that doesn’t need to be there and further limiting our lives. “This rule shames a population of people of their autonomy to shop in a way that best fits their lifestyle and finances,” Brathwaite says.

So when it comes to picking and choosing what will make it in your grocery cart this week, Feller sums it up nicely by saying, “I generally encourage people to shop the entire grocery store and to choose options that are affordable, accessible, culturally relevant, and nutrient-dense.” (Don’t forget about what tastes good, too!)

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