Which consumer are you?

The astute academic or health professional: You have a degree (one or more) in nutrition, you have PubMed bookmarked on your internet browser, and you spend your days dispelling nutrition myths and/or researching the next nutrition breakthrough.

The health foodie. You scour wholesome recipes online, you already know the nutrition trends for 2019, you make detailed grocery lists like it’s your job, you’re a #mealprepsunday veteran, and always know where to find the best deals for natural/organic/raw/fresh eats.

The bachelor/broke student: Is it cheap? Edible? Delicious? Easy to prepare? If yes, it goes in the cart.

The athlete with phenomenal sport skills, and (developing) culinary know-how: You know that the foods you eat influence your athletic performance. You are game for eating better, under one condition: you need quick/easy foods that pack a nutritional punch.

The busy parent: There are lunches to make, picky eaters to feed, and you can’t remember the last time you enjoyed a calm, healthy mealtime at home. Grocery shopping is typically a stressful battle between your healthy intentions, and the little ones’ demands for sugary cereals and flashy marketing.

Photo Credit: Lifehacker

Whether you identify with one or multiple distinct categories listed here, each one is unified by a few common underlying themes:

We all eat.

We crave amazing flavors.

There are never enough hours in the day.

We really do have good intentions; We want to eat well.

Assuming we don’t grow/hunt/gather our own food, we cross paths with one another for a common purpose: Food Shopping! On that note, we’ve been exposed to the same rules of thumb for healthy grocery shopping:

-Shop the perimeter!

-Steer clear of the middle aisles!

The way I see it, there are two types of people in this world: Those who love the center aisles (but could use a little strategy for picking the best options), and those who openly shun those aisles (but are secretly curious to explore the forbidden foods within).

As a health professional, it’s my duty to pass along this tried-and-true advice. But as a real-life RD on a budget, I hear you: Those middle aisles are mighty tempting, so what’s a guy/girl to do?

Take a deep breath, direct that grocery cart towards those center aisles, keep your eye on the prize and walk with intention because you have a fool-proof plan. Healthy shoppers, unite! Today, you’ll conquer those middle aisles like the savvy consumer you are.

Photo Credit: The Sports Nutrition Coach

Your strategy: Divide and conquer by food group like so:

Whole grains, legumes, and pseudograins: Instant oatmeal, frozen brown rice or quinoa (that’s a pseudograin), ready-to-serve plain cooked rice, Grape Nuts (for impressive iron and fiber content), popcorn, Vaccuum packed pre-cooked lentils (that’s a legume), whole grain bread (can you find bread with 0-1g sugar per serving? Can you find fiber above 2g per serving?)

Fruits and vegetables: Frozen is your friend! These items are picked at peak ripeness and flash-frozen immediately afterwards. Canned items are fine as well (in light syrup or water). Can you get all colors of the rainbow?

Protein: Canned beans, canned tuna, canned chicken, canned salmon, frozen chicken strips (no breading), hummus

Dairy: single serve plain Greek yogurt (Ok, you’ll find this in the perishables, but this is too versatile not to include), string cheese

Fats: Olives, frozen Cool Whip, prepared guacamole

Snacks: Dark chocolate (Pro-tip: Pick one with single-digit grams sugar per serving), nuts (try pistachios, almonds, or walnuts), dried fruit, jerky, whole grain chips, hummus

Drinks: Chocolate milk

Spreads/flavorings: Sriracha, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, pesto

Photo credit: Smile Sandwich

 Once you return home from this über successful grocery trip, you’ll want to assemble some stellar meals using your new bounty. Try this one-day sample plan:

Breakfast: Yogurt cup topped with frozen fruit, Grape Nuts, nut butter (purchase single serve packets in a pinch!) Feeling extra hungry? Prepare a side of instant oatmeal

Lunch: Tuna sandwich (canned tuna mixed w/ mustard, Ezekiel bread). Side of green salad (found in deli section)

Snack: Handful of nuts, handful chips, and hummus

Post Workout: Classic PB&J, or chocolate milk

Dinner: Defrost that frozen rice, quinoa, or lentils, frozen veggies of choice, top w/ beans (and/or thawed ready-to-eat chicken), salsa, pre-made guacamole, and Sriracha

Dessert: 2-3 squares of dark chocolate, alongside frozen blueberries w/ a dollop of cream

Not everyone has a nutrition coach by their side, but you, ASN reader, have an edge. Use this guide to confidently navigate the previously forbidden center aisles. Print it, internalize it, share it. No nonsense, no gimmicks. Blasphemy? Hardly. Creative and backed in science? Absolutely.

By Sabrina Sales Martinez, MS, RDN

In the United States, more than 35% of the adult population and 17% of children and adolescents are obese [1-2]. Overconsumption of calories has been contributing to the rise in obesity, and fast food restaurants are often mentioned as a possible culprit. Fast food menu items have been shown to be lower in nutritional quality, higher in saturated fat and misaligned with national dietary guidelines. Often, full-service restaurants are thought to offer higher quality foods and healthier menu options. Data on the nutritional quality of foods sold in full-service restaurants, however, is lacking. According to a recent article in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, there may be a misconception that full-service restaurants are healthier than fast food restaurants.

A recently published article by Auchincloss and colleagues [3] may provide much needed information on full-service restaurants and the nutritional content of their menu items. The researchers at Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania reviewed menus from 21 full-service chain restaurants in Philadelphia at different price points and over 2,600 menu items. Menu items that were labeled as being healthier options were also compared to the US Dietary Guidelines. Restaurants were included if they provided calorie and sodium information for all menu items and if most of their main dishes were single serving entrees. Their results showed that on average a la carte entrees and appetizers were about 800 kcalories and 50% did not meet the healthier criteria set by the authors based on the US Dietary Guidelines. About one-third of the entrees and appetizers exceeded the dietary reference values (DRV) for a 2,000 kcalorie diet for adults and 1,400 kcalorie diet for children for saturated fat and sodium. In addition, only 20% of the items met minimum fiber recommendations. The most astonishing findings from this study was that, on average, a meal that consisted of an adult entrÉe, side dish and shared appetizer provided about 1,495 kcalories, 28 grams of saturated fat, 3,312 mg of sodium and 11 grams of fiber. If a non-alcoholic beverage and dessert was added to the meal, then it totaled 2,020 kcalories, 39 grams of saturated fat, 3,760 mg sodium and 12 grams of fiber. Yes, one meal exceeded the average adult’s energy needs for the day! Other important findings include that menu items targeted to seniors had surpassed the DRV for saturated fat and sodium, and that those mostly targeted to children exceeded calorie and sodium DRVs.

The results from the study by Auchincloss and colleagues [3] are welcomed, because as previously mentioned, data on the nutritional quality of menu items in full-service restaurants are scarce. Considering that full-service chain restaurants control most of the US restaurant market and that almost half of food expenditures are from restaurants [4], this study provides important information that can be translated into nutrition education for the restaurant customer. Most of the healthy labeled items at these restaurants only considered calories as a criterion for being “healthy” and only half of the restaurants offered a healthier option.

This study only provides the starting point in addressing the nutritional quality of meals in restaurants, and the authors hope that these data can be compared to future studies to see whether changes occur in providing healthier options and whether these options are implemented at the request of consumers or due to regulation. As part of the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 all restaurants with greater than 20 locations will need to provide menu labeling and the customers will need to have the necessary tools to understand the meaning of these labels and its implications for their health. Findings from present and future studies should be used to propose and implement interventions and/or strategies that can be used to bring about awareness to the restaurant industry and its consumers of the recommended dietary intakes and adoption of healthier menu options. Examining the nutritional quality of restaurant meals may be a worthwhile public health endeavor to reduce obesity, its associated health conditions and their financial burden in medical expenses, especially when there is a strong trend towards consuming increased number of meals outside the home, and there is evidence that these meals may be higher in calories, saturated fat and sodium. In these conditions, establishing criteria for healthier options for restaurants may be warranted.

The authors have made recommendations to restaurants based on their findings.

1. Centers for Disease and Control (CDC). Overweight and Obesity: Adult Obesity Facts.
2. Centers for Disease and Control (CDC). Overweight and Obesity: Childhood Obesity Facts.
3. Auchincloss AH, Leonberg BL, Glanz K, Bellitz S, Ricchezza A, Jervis A. Nutritional Value of Meals at Full-service Restaurant Chains. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2014 Jan;46(1):75-81. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2013.10.008.
4. Industry at a glance. National Restaurant Association website.