Shopping Cart Overhaul
Coffee, ice cream ... and tofu? Our nutritionist makes some healthy improvements during one man’s trip to the supermarket

By Mark Eller
Photos by Cliff Grassmick

Although I wasn’t always supermarket savvy, I now consider myself to be a reasonably discerning grocery shopper. For instance, I’ve gotten so comfortable in the produce section that I no longer scream for a plumber every time the automatic misting system kicks in. I’m the first to admit, however, that there’s more I can learn, especially in regard to nutrition. That’s why I agreed to hit the food store with Lynn Smith, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist who has more than ten years of experience as a nutritionist and natural foods chef.

The lively Smith turned out to be a pretty cool shopping buddy—she didn’t scold me (much), and she helped to expand significantly the quality of the food in my cart. Her recommendations were reasonably painless, and I’ve been sticking to them since our supermarket tour. Add some of Smith’s healthy tips to your grocery list the next time you start tossing items into your shopping cart.

Lynn Smith: Before we get started, how’s your diet? Are you generally happy with what you eat?

Mark Eller: I think I do OK, though I’m sure I make mistakes. I’m very active, and I wonder if I could improve my workouts by eating better. Another factor is that my fiancée, Lisa, has a big-time sweet tooth.

LS: So, you’re going to pin all the less-healthy choices on her?

ME: That’s my plan.

LS: Well, I hope you’ll try to be fair. OK, here’s the dairy section.

ME: We need butter at home [reaches for a nonorganic brand].

LS: Have you ever considered an organic butter? Conventionally raised animals are fed growth hormones and feed that is exposed to pesticides, which if not properly detoxified by the animal may end up in their fat cells. Because butter is the fat of the animal, you may take on an extra load of toxins if you use nonorganic butter. An organic butter would lower your exposure to the chemicals that build up in the animals’ fat cells.

ME: That’s quite gross. But it sounds like a good idea.

LS: I’m glad you think so. Do you ever eat tofu?

ME: Occasionally. Lisa doesn’t eat much meat, so we’ve been trying to figure out how to cook this stuff.

LS: Well, if you are not comfortable cooking plain tofu, you can try the preflavored variety. These are precooked, so all you need to do is slice them up and add them to your meal. I can see from the labels that the seasonings used are all pretty healthy—no MSG, for example. Not too surprising, I guess, considering the types of companies that make tofu.

There’s no real substitute for well-diversified eating. A pill can’t contain all the different compounds offered by a healthy diet. By the way, there’s nothing nutritionally wrong with meat. Lean cuts of free-range beef or skinless chicken are good sources of protein and minerals. Fish is also a good lean protein source. However, you do need to be aware of the species likely to contain high levels of mercury, such as albacore tuna, shark, and swordfish. Limit your consumption of these fish, especially if you are pregnant or a child.

ME: I’ll bet you’re about to recommend organically raised meats, too.

LS: You’re on to me. It’s really important to take every opportunity you have to make sound eating choices. That way, if you’re on the road and have to eat a fast-food meal, your body will be capable of handling it because you’re getting solid nutrition, with very few toxins, while you are at home.

ME: Here’s the produce section. Let’s see. I usually get some oranges and a few types of leafy greens, if I’m good. I’ll admit that Lisa’s much better than I am about eating fresh fruit and vegetables.

LS: That’s great, because she’s going to have to replace the nutrients she misses from not eating meat. And you’re going to want a broad spectrum of nutrition, too, because you two are pretty athletic, right?

ME: We both run and cycle a lot. Lisa’s pretty accomplished in triathlon and off-road adventure races, and I rock climb.

LS: You both need a diverse, nutrient-dense diet to give your bodies the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants needed to recuperate from training. It’s easy to get calories or energy from food—it’s just like putting gas in your car. But your body also needs the nutrients to do the repair and maintenance work. Vitamins and minerals are significantly depleted in processed foods, but you don’t lose the calories. That’s where the term “empty calorie food” comes from. Because she’s a vegetarian, Lisa also needs to seek out vegetable sources of protein and minerals. When you take animal products out of your diet, you take away your biggest source of protein and minerals. So if you want to have a healthy, sustaining vegetarian diet, you need to know where to get those nutrients. At every meal, Lisa needs to have beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts, or seeds—also eggs, cheese, or yogurt if she’s not vegan—and include whole grains, dark leafy greens, colorful vegetables, and seaweed, which are great for minerals. And you’re going to want to make sure you take advantage of the antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber that fruits and vegetables provide.

ME: Can’t I just take a multivitamin?

LS: Many people could benefit from supplementing their diet with a multivitamin because they are eating so many nutrient-poor convenience and processed foods. But there’s no real substitute for well-diversified eating. A pill can’t contain all the different compounds offered by a healthy diet.

ME: OK, OK, I’ll eat a salad tonight.

LS: Hey—you can do better than plain romaine lettuce [pulls the bag of romaine from Mark’s hands and puts it back on the shelf].

ME: C’mon. Lettuce is just … lettuce, right?

LS: Not really. Dark green colors are your tip that you’re getting a leaf that’s rich in vitamins. Here [hands back the bag of romaine]. If you really like this stuff, try mixing it with spinach for better nutrient density.

Another thing you might want to consider is adding some canned beans to your salad because they’re a nice way to get some additional protein. Peppers, too, will add color and more nutrients—colorful fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, the compounds in food that offer cancer protection. Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and chard; orange vegetables, including carrots, yams, winter squash, and sweet potatoes; and dark berries, such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, are all loaded with antioxidants.

ME: Beans have iron, too, don’t they?

LS: Yep. Beans, spinach, even just mixed greens—they all contribute little bits to the mineral and nutrient spectrum. Individually none of them are that great, but it all adds up. This is why you need to think of building your diet from a broad base of foods.

ME: Point taken. Now, here’s my favorite aisle. Pasta and tomato sauce! I could eat this stuff all day. You can’t get healthier than that, right?

LS: Umm … if I’d known you were shopping for tomato sauce, I’d have suggested you pick up some fresh tomatoes. But canned ones are good, too. They’re high in vitamin C and lycopene. Now, what kind of pasta do you like?

ME: Penne is my favorite shape. Here’s what I usually buy [hands Lynn a box of his usual noodles].

LS: Have you tried whole-wheat pasta? You know, when you eliminate all the natural dark-colored grains and just use white flour, you throw out a lot of nutrients. For instance, you lose up to 90 percent of the thiamin, which is important for your nervous system and can help keep you calm. When you use white flour only, you also lose B vitamins, which are important for helping produce neurotransmitters—brain chemicals that help balance your mood. You also lose most of the soluble fiber, which is needed to keep your cholesterol low and help balance your blood sugar.

ME: I see what you’re saying. Still, if I load up on my favorite pasta for dinner, I know I can go for a big ride or run the next day and not run out of power. Are you telling me that I’ll go even longer on whole-wheat pasta?

LS: You might not see much of a difference for one particular workout, but think of all the demands you put on your body every day. If it’s not something athletic, it’s probably stress at work or at home. You need to have a good nutritional base to cope, so that your cells can rebuild themselves. If cells don’t have the nutrients they need, or if they’re busy fighting toxins, they’re not going to bounce back the way they should.

ME: So, it’s sort of a ground-up effect?

LS: Exactly. You’ll notice a difference when you’re eating well, not because you can run farther or faster right away, but because your body recovers better. You get injured less often, and your sense of well-being is enhanced. All of that leads to better performances.

ME: And all these benefits come from a box of brown pasta?

LS: No, it all comes from the cumulative effect of eating well. Little by little, your eating choices all add up.

ME: Here’s the breakfast aisle. I’m sensing that you’re going to have a problem with our favorite cereal [picks up a sugar-laden rice cereal brand].

LS: No-no-no. Put that back! Wait. Let’s take a look at the nutrition label first.

ME: Oh boy. Here it comes.

<<p>b>LS: [Reading label] Rice—by which they mean white rice—sugar, corn syrup. That’s a lot of simple carbohydrates and not much else. Starches, which provide long-lasting energy, come from complex carbs. The only form of them in this box is white rice, which is about as close to a simple, fast-burning source of sugar as a starch can get. It’s highly refined rice, too. There’s no fiber, so your body breaks this cereal down to sugar almost immediately.

Quick-burn carbs cause a sudden surge in blood sugar, which is followed by a surge in insulin. Quick-burn carbs like this—which also include white-flour breakfast cereals, pastries, white bread, chips, and pretzels, plus sweet drinks, soda, teas, coffee drinks, and alcohol—cause a sudden surge in your blood sugar, which is followed by a surge in your insulin. Insulin’s job is to lower your blood sugar after eating. Blood sugar that goes up quickly often falls quickly, and that situation is called hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. Hypoglycemia can cause fatigue, mood swings, concentration problems, and sugar cravings. If you do create these extremes in your blood sugar metabolism over a long period of time, you are likely to increase your chances of developing adult diabetes, which is an epidemic in our country.

ME: I guess I can stop sprinkling sugar on top, then.

LS: You will if you don’t want to send your energy systems on a roller-coaster ride every morning. Do you drink coffee with breakfast?

ME: Never more than two pots.

LS: Well, even just a cup is going to cause your adrenal glands to release adrenaline into your bloodstream. That’s where the boost that coffee gives you comes from. And do you know what that adrenaline does? It tells your body to release its own sugar stores for energy, which is why you can have a cup of coffee and not eat breakfast. The down side of this is that you’re using your adrenal reserves just to get through your day. Those reserves are supposed to be there to help you out in emergencies, but if you’re just using them for your daily energy needs you will eventually burn out.

ME: So coffee provides a sugar buzz?

LS: Exactly. And it comes at a cost. Not only do you end up with more sugar than you need, you’re taxing your body. Adrenal energy is like a nonrenewable resource. That cup of coffee in the morning may be why you are so tired at the end of the day.

ME: I’m not sure I can live without coffee. But I guess I can cut back to a cup or three.

LS: Do it gradually and I’ll bet you won’t even miss coffee in a few months—if you’re diligent about gradually reducing the dose. You can also try mixing decaf beans in with your regular blend. Or try black or green tea, which have less caffeine than a cup of coffee and also have the added benefit of antioxidants. But read the label of green teas—some brands have far less caffeine than others.

ME: OK, let’s see. Less coffee. More complex carbs from whole grains. A selection of colorful fruits and vegetables, dark salad greens, and beans, tofu, and nuts. Organic meats and milk. I can live with those suggestions.

LS: If you stick to making two or three healthier choices, and you really adhere to them for a few months, I know you’ll feel a big difference. Over time, making a few smart choices can have a tremendous effect on how you feel.

ME: I’m ready to give it a try. Now, which way to the dessert aisle? Lisa, ahem, wanted me to pick up some ice cream.

Freelance writer Mark Eller is currently perfecting the recipe for a dish he likes to call Tofu Without Tears.