Tips for healthy shopping

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On Monday I wrote about the nonsense of food labelling. Those entrusted to steer us to a healthier diet have contrived to propose and implement schemes which give, in my view, potentially distorted and misleading guidance regarding what is good and not-so-good to eat. Some of the comments that come after this blog post should remind us all that if you’re having to scrutinise the nutritional information on the side of a packet, you probably don’t have a particularly healthy food in your hand. Because if your commitment was to eat a truly healthy diet, then you might resolve to eat ostensibly natural and unprocessed foods that do not require nutrition labels telling you how much sugar or salt or whatever they contain.

I mean, would you go into a supermarket, pick up a bag of apples and check the packaging for ‘ingredients’ and then see what the, say, traffic light labelling scheme tells us about the nutritional profile of those apples? Probably not. The same, I think, would be true for lots of other natural and unprocessed foods such as some lamb chops, a side of salmon or a head of broccoli. So, when food shopping one piece of general advice I would give is to avoid, in the main, foods where you’d be inclined to check its nutritional profile before it.

I was interested to read recently a piece concerned with food shopping here. The piece, which appeared in the New York Times, was by a student at the University of Florida who had previously participated in research conducted by Professor Brian Wansink, author of the well-worth-a-read book entitled Mindless Eating. The research looked at the relationship between the length of time spent shopping and the choices made. In short, the research showed that, generally speaking, the individuals who spent most time shopping, examining packages and stopping at whatever caught their eye, also tended to spend the most. Though, as the piece states, the also tended to put stray, often unhealthy, items into their baskets. Apparently, when subsequently questioned about their thinking behind their purchases, it seems there was often not much thinking that had gone on. This seems to be an extension of mindless eating: mindless shopping.

The piece points out that perhaps the best way to save money when shopping, and I would add make generally better purchasing decisions, is to prepare a precise list before shopping. The mission, then, is to get those items into your basket or trolley as quick as you can. This is likely to help combat compulsive, unconscious urges to buy ‘unnecessary’ food items that can leave us lighter in the pocket but no lighter on the scales.

One other thing that is worth bearing in mind is that making healthy food choices and purchases becomes significantly more difficult when we are hungry. I think walking through a supermarket with a piqued appetite is like walking through a minefield, and almost inevitably makes processed, unhealthy foods such as doughnuts, pastries and confectionery seem quite irresistible. One key to health shopping is to make sure we’re not hungry when we’re doing it.

While I like children, I think many parents will know only to well that the presence of little people on shopping trips makes the process more challenging, generally. A few years back, I wrote a piece on some tactics that can help here. I’ve pasted this piece below.

Fighting in the Aisles – 17th August 2003

The BBC is under attack, and not just over claims relating to the sexing up of dossiers either. The Food Commission – an independent watchdog body campaigning for healthier food for all – has recently complained to the Beeb about its licensing of the Tweenies’ good name and image to companies marketing foodstuffs directly to children. The Tweenies’ guest appearances on a range of food products including McDonald’s Happy Meals, chocolate bars and sugary cereals has led to the charge that the BBC is aiding and abetting the promotion of poor nutrition for children. There has also been a considerable backlash from parents who feel their attempts to feed their kids well are being undermined by the madcap antics of some characters at the BBC.

Personally, I very much welcome the moving of this issue into the spotlight. The Food Commission’s efforts serve to remind us of the widespread use of wholesome children’s characters to sell distinctly unwholesome fare. Parents are only too aware of the power this brand of marketing has to increase kids’ desire for fast and processed foods.

Many parents wishing to exert some control in shopping situations are understandably tempted to just say ‘no’. However, studies have found that a hardline approach generally increases a child’s desire for forbidden foods, something that is likely to inflame hostilities in the longer term.

A better tactic is to agree a set number of treats (I suggest one or two) that a child can choose on each outing. Children usually respond well to the element of choice.

The most common arena for food feuds are supermarkets – they have temptation all over the shop.

I suggest avoiding taking kids into this environment at all. The absence of children clearly dissolves much of the potential for the battle of wills that the supermarket setting induces. Not all parents have the luxury of being able to extricate themselves from their kids when the shopping needs doing. However, if two grown-ups are on hand, an option might be for one to take on the mantle of child-minding duties while the other makes a solo supermarket sweep.

An even better tactic, though, might be to junk the supermarket altogether. Making use of the farm shops, farmers’ markets or the high-street fishmonger, baker and greengrocer may be preferable for a variety of reasons, including support of local businesses and producers. Importantly, the closest thing to a character-branded food likely to be found in markets and speciality shops is gingerbread men. Multi-stop shopping may seem arduous compared to the convenience of the supermarket. However, many find this more traditional way of purchasing food a more wholesome experience, and one that can make countering unhealthy influences on their children as easy as taking candy from a baby.

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