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Natural Awakenings Metro Phoenix & Northern Arizona

Navigating the Grocery Store: Dr. Alan Christianson describes where to find fresh, unprocessed staples of a healthy meal

Jul 01, 2012 08:03AM ● By By Alan Christianson, NMD

Making healthy food choices may seem overwhelming at times, but planning a nutritious meal can be easy. In order to maintain a healthy diet, one need not revert to the lifestyle of an agrarian farmer, because the good news is that a nutritious dinner can still be found within the four walls of the neighborhood supermarket.

Navigating a grocery store and reading the labels of thousands of products can be daunting, but one easy trick is to start at the perimeter. That is typically the place to find fresh, unprocessed staples of a healthy dinner, including the bakery, deli, produce section and the dairy cooler. These areas are filled with simple, fresh options that pack a nutritious punch.

There are good things to be found in the aisles, as well, but be extremely mindful that many of the processed foods on the shelves contain the same basic ingredients: wheat flour, corn flour, corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, salt and enemy number one: monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

MSG is added as a preservative to many of the processed foods at the grocery store—it just might not be recognized in the list of ingredients on the back of the box. It is sometimes labeled as hydrolyzed soy extract, natural flavorings, natural additives and other deceptive aliases.

That is why it’s usually best to begin planning meals by walking the perimeter and selecting items that are fresh and unprocessed first. It’s an easy way to add variety and essential nutrients to any diet. Finding the right ingredients is as easy as 1-2-3: produce, protein and starch.

Produce is a key component of a healthy meal, and about half of any dinner should be comprised of it. A good rule of thumb for measuring out produce is to serve a portion equivalent to about two hands’ worth for each meal. One of the biggest health benefits of a diet rich in produce is its antioxidant content.

Antioxidants help negate the harmful effects of free radicals. Look for colorful, nutrient-dense produce such as carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, spinach and yellow and red bell peppers. These are all great additions to a dinner and don’t require a lot of prep time.

Protein is part of every cell, so it makes sense that protein is essential to diet. An appropriate protein portion is about the size of the palm of the hand. The best options for protein are those low in fat and less processed—foods like salmon, white meat poultry, and shellfish.

Red meat is not bad for variety—just try to cut out the fat, because that’s where the toxins are concentrated. Wild and organic choices avoid pesticides, antibiotics and other contaminants. Vegetarians and vegans can try tempeh, tofu, hummus and other meat alternatives.

Eggs are a good source of protein, too. Milk, yogurt and cheese don’t strictly count as protein, because they provide more carbohydrate, sugar and fat calories than they do protein calories. A variety of protein options can be found in the butcher, deli and organic sections of the grocery store. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Starch is the final piece of the puzzle. It has become the target of some nutritionists, such as anti-carbohydrate dietician Dr. Robert Atkins, but the reality is starch is an essential component of our diet and the biggest source of fuel for the body. We just have to know how to incorporate it. The rule of thumb for starches is for the portion to be about the size of a fist.

Incorporate unprocessed, slow-burning carbohydrates that are high in fiber into a meal. Foods like oatmeal, whole-grain pasta, beans, brown rice and quinoa are the perfect addition to any meal and add to menu variety. Even at the end of the day, it is important to maintain an energy level by including an appropriate amount of starch into dinner.

Following these basic guidelines will more likely result in a successful shopping experience and a great homemade meal.

Dr. Alan Christianson is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Thyroid Disease. His medical practice focuses on optimal diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disease. For more information, call 480-657-0003 or visit

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