How do I make healthy grocery store choices?

April 6, 2013

Q: I have been working out for a long time and consider myself to be in pretty good shape, but my one weakness is definitely my diet. Overall, I eat pretty healthy but could always do better.

One of the biggest problems I have is figuring out what products at the grocery store are good choices. Obviously lean meats, fruits and vegetables are OK, but what about some of the other products that come in packages? Do you have any suggestions on how to evaluate prepackaged foods in order to pick the best ones?

A: Navigating the grocery store can be confusing, but once you learn the basics of label reading you’ll be well on your way to making better choices. Here are some guidelines to help you get started, and once you know what to look for, it will be as easy as apple pie, or should we say fresh fruit.

Read the ingredients

Labels will sometimes contain lots of different things, and it’s always better to chose natural foods that have not been altered much by man, such as oatmeal, sweet potatoes, vegetables and lean meats. When picking from the shelf it’s helpful to use the First Three Rule. This rule means that the first three ingredients listed on the label are the majority of what the product is made from, so if you see red flags in the first three, such as enriched flour, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, sodium, preservatives, butter or any ingredient that includes the word hydrogenated, run for the hills and find a better choice.

Recognize sugar aliases

Food manufacturers are great at telling white lies when it comes to sugar. In fact, there’s a long list of aliases they use to disguise it so you won’t even know it’s in the product.

Words like glucose, fructose, lactose, cane juice, honey, malt and falernum are just convenient substitutes for sugar and should be avoided whenever possible.

Learn to recognize these words and look for them when making a healthy choice. Chances are, if a product contains one or more of these words there’s a better choice out there somewhere.

Check out the serving size

Another misleading part of food labels is the serving size. A product can look like a great choice until you have to multiply the fat grams times the number of servings listed on the label.

For example, I found what appeared to be two very comparable packages of ground beef. Both said they were lean with a total of 8 grams of fat per serving. Not too bad for making healthier choice burgers. However, once I took a closer look at the serving size I realized they were much different in nutritional value. The first product was based on a serving size of 8 ounces, while the second serving was only 4 ounces. This means that the first product had 8 grams of fat total, while the other actually had 16 grams of fat for the same amount of meat. Making the serving size smaller is a sneaky way to make the fat level seem lower.

Dissect the label

There are three basic categories you need to be concerned with: sodium, sugar and fat. Although it’s unhealthy as well as impossible to eliminate 100 percent of these categories, it makes good sense to choose products that fall into a healthy range. Picking items that have 200 mgs of sodium or less per serving, 6 grams of sugar or less per serving and 8 grams of fat or less per serving would be a great start.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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