Most dietitians and nutrition experts will include, “Never shop for groceries on an empty stomach” among their most important tips. It makes sense when you think about it; the rumbling of your tummy might talk you into calorie-dense, easy-to-consume junk food. But does this age-old advice hold up in real life? There’s some research that says it does.
According to a 2013 study, researchers had shoppers select food from a virtual grocery store and a real grocery store in a two-part test. In each, half the shoppers were given a snack prior to making their food choices, and half were left to do the same on an empty stomach. In both phases of the experiment, the hungry shoppers chose more calorie-dense junk food than the satisfied shoppers.
Although researchers are still concerned about junk food sources like fast food—34 percent of kids in the U.S. eat fast food on a given day, according to a 2015 report—a new paper published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that most unhealthy food comes from the grocery store.
To make sure you’re not walking toward aisles of poor choices without fuel to power you past ‘em, you should always enter the grocery store armed with a plan, according to dietitian Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. Here’s her advice for making sure you’re shopping smart and healthy:
Eat a Healthy Snack
Have a snack before heading to the grocery store to prevent hunger from coming between you and healthy shopping decisions. Gans suggests pairing protein and fiber to help you feel satisfied, and keep it to no more than 200 calories. Some good options: Greek yogurt and berries, a cappuccino with cinnamon and 1 teaspoon of sugar (if you need something sweet), or sliced veggies and cottage cheese. If you typically shop after work, keep a stash of mixed nuts and seeds in your glove box.
Make a List—and Stick to the List!
Gans says that, simple as it is, the shopping list is where most people fail. “A lot of times, people won’t make a shopping list, or they’ll forget to bring it with them,” she explains. “If you never remember to bring it, make one on your phone.” Put some thought into it before you hit the store; think about your healthy meals and snacks for the week, and just get what you’ll need to create them.
Plan for Your Indulgences
Having a list doesn’t mean you can’t indulge at all. “Plan for it,” she explains. “If you want the chocolate, buy a bar that you can portion out. If you want the ice cream, buy the ice cream—or the individual serving frozen yogurt bars to make sure you’re not getting out of control.” Choose one item each week where you splurge reasonably.
Shop Every Aisle
According to Gans, lots of people think that they’ll avoid calorie-dense, processed “trouble” by sticking to the perimeter of the store, which typically houses healthy staples like produce, low-fat dairy, lean meat, eggs. “You need to shop every aisle,” she explains. “If you don’t, you’ll be missing out on things like beans, whole grains, nuts and nut butters.” Remember, this is why you have your list. Commit to the items you’ve placed on it in advance, and don’t be afraid to dive deep for healthy fats and whole grains.
Be Adventurous with Flavors, Not Calories
If you do feel the need to deviate from your list, or have some spontaneous fun while shopping, Gans says to focus on new flavors in the produce section (where you can reasonably go wild). “Sometimes, it’s important to be a little adventurous,” she says. “Choose items you wouldn’t normally choose—like turnips or parsnips. They’re healthy, and, if they’re in season, they’ll also be cheaper. Learn to have fun in that way.”
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.