Nearly everyone wants to eat healthy food, according to an International Food Information Council Foundation and American Heart Association report released last month.
But not everyone knows how to shop for healthy food – about three out of four grocery shoppers believe finding healthy food is challenging, according to the report.
That’s why The Medical Center offers dietitian-led trips down the aisles of Bowling Green’s groceries.
Jenna Polk leads these excursions. She simplifies grocery shopping into buying lots of whole foods and reading labels – and guides clients through that process during her tours.
Grocery shopping should start in the produce section, and it’s where to fill most of your cart, according to Polk.
“The nice thing about produce is that all produce is good,” she said.
Polk encourages people to pick different kinds of fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors, as colors reflect the types of nutrients inside.
To save money on produce, Polk suggests buying frozen, or purchasing fresh produce in season. Polk also provides clients with the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” lists of which produce to prioritize buying organic and which ones are probably all right non-organic.
When venturing outside of produce, it’s time to start reading labels.
“There’s a lot of deception in advertising,” Polk said. “You’ve got to be a label reader to make wise choices.”
First and foremost, shoppers should scan each label for sugar.
“The less sugar the better,” Polk said.
Sugar hides in drinks, dairy and grain-based foods. Even organic packaged foods masquerading as healthy items – like cereals – or foods marketed to children can be full of sugar.
“The ones marketed to the kids are the worst,” Polk said.
In addition to monitoring sugar, Polk suggests that people monitor the sodium, fat and the amount of whole grains in grain-based foods. For the latter, she gives the example of bread: “Every single piece of bread is wheat, they’re not all whole,” she said.
Omega fats found in fish are heart healthy, she said, but people eating meat should select “lean” meat and watch their portions – such as using the palm of a hand for reference.
“I have to stay to a man the size of your wife’s palm,” Polk said. “We don’t need as much meat as Americans eat.”
Polk didn’t recommend eating processed meats, due to the sodium, nitrates and the associated risk of cancer.
For general nutrition guidelines, Polk follows the official U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations of splitting meals into 50 percent fruits and vegetables, 25 percent grains and 25 percent protein.
If clients want additional help preparing meal plans and individualized trajectories, that will require further medical nutrition therapy beyond the $30 grocery tour, according to Polk.
The goal of the grocery tour is to explain to clients what they’re seeing in the store – beyond the pretty packaging.
“A lot of people just don’t know what to look for,” Polk said.
In her practice, most people scheduling visits are doing so because it was doctor-recommended, due to diabetes, celiac disease or heart problems. “They’re coming usually because their doctor sent them because they’re having some kind of medical issue,” Polk said, and that’s mostly been the case with the grocery tours.
Since joining The Medical Center in 2016, she’s only had a handful of shopping clients, though. Once, she led an 18-year-old about to leave for college through the aisles. Another client’s spouse had a heart attack and wanted to learn how to cook healthier family meals.
But most people, whether moderately healthy or facing congestive heart failure, can benefit from learning some of the hidden dangers of food marketing, according to Polk.
“I think the tour is appropriate for anybody,” she said.