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I was thinking about the idea that shopping around the edges of the grocery store is better for you. It's an idea that makes sense on the face of it. You start in the fresh produce section, make your way along to the fish counter, maybe pick up some fresh meat or dairy products and then to the bakery counter. I even had a group of the first year medical students suggest this as a healthy strategy in a recent student project, but upon closer inspection I think that using this as a general suggestion does folks a disservice.
I went to the local Winn Dixie (can't get a much more basic grocery store than that) and walked around the edges, starting at the door and working counter-clockwise (some stores are set up opposite). I was a bit dismayed by what I found. It's not all that great around the edges.
First I encountered a section of "natural" juices such as Pom, Odwalla and Naked Juices. Healthier than soda, I suppose, but pretty much empty calories. These are in the first part of the produce section and are followed by cut up fruit (good for you but pretty overpriced). This was followed by bagged greens such as lettuces and spinach, but then a large section of refrigerated dressings like Naturally Fresh. These dressings are some of the worst on the market, as they're really high in calories. (Their blue cheese dressing contains a whopping 170 calories for only 2 tablespoons - compare this to my Blue Cheese Dressing, with a serving size of 1/4 cup and only 50 calories).
Finally there were some veggies with a section of mushrooms, asparagus, squash and the like. Along the first section I estimate that only 40% was good quality fresh food and the rest was highly processed, calorie dense, expensive products.
This pattern was repeated throughout my trip around the periphery of the store. Organic dairy followed by a huge section of chilled beer and then high calorie, high sodium prepared salads like potato salad and cole slaw. Good quality cheeses followed by a deli section selling fried chicken, hoagies and highly processed luncheon meats.
In truth, my very unscientific estimate of the offerings puts the better quality food at no more than 50% of the shelf space around the outside of the store. The worst part is that the bad stuff is generally really bad. That includes products like Hormel Refrigerated Entrees, most of which come in at well over 1,000 mg of sodium per serving. Or Oscar Meyer Lunchables (one of the worst possible lunches for your child).
There are good choices around the outside, of course. Fresh and frozen fish, dairy, cheese, lean beef and pork, chicken, and freshly baked breads. There are, however, a lot of pretty bad ones.
The issue is that just shopping the outside edge of the store leaves so much out that's good for you. I snaked my way through the (dreaded) inside of the store, up one aisle and down another, and found so much to love. Here are some fantastic choices that you would miss by following the "only the edges" rule:
Beans (both canned and dry)
Whole wheat pasta
Cornmeal (for polenta)
Tomato and marinara sauce
Flour and ingredients for baking
The spice section
Seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, pinenuts)
Peanut butter and Jelly
Olive, canola and other vegetable oils
These are only a few of the items that you'd miss.
Shopping is not about a gimmick but about making plans, writing out your menus and shopping lists and using great quality ingredients. It's clear that the grocery stores have figured out where to place items for maximum sale. So be smart: shop your list, stock up on the great items from the center of the store and add in fresh ingredients from the edges.
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
October 11, 2010