If you’ve ever felt manipulated by the impulse buys around cash registers (ChapStick, gum, condoms, key chains that have all three), you may have already realized the psychology behind grocery stores. The way they arrange and package food has a huge influence on whether you buy purple cabbage or purple-flavored globules of corn starch, and knowing how to navigate the aisles can be the difference between fitting in your favorite jeans and weeping openly while sweating to the oldies with Richard Simmons.


When you walk through the automated glass doors of any grocery store, the first thing you should note is layout.

"Hit the perimeter. That’s where all the whole, unprocessed foods are," says Christy Smith, a registered and licensed dietitian. She explains that while processed foods are lacking (severely) in nutrition, they cost more than whole foods, and the stores are in it for your cash. "It’s all marketing. They want to sell you the high-profit items – cookies, soda, frozen foods – and staples don’t tend to be big money makers," she says.


One of the best ways to amp up the healthy side of your grocery cart is to fill it with colorful food (the kind that gets its color from the earth, not a vat of chemicals). Smith explained that colorful foods like fruits and vegetables are always good for you, even the ones that have been pegged as sponges for pesticide or natural sugar.

"Fill your cart. We all need more fruits and vegetables, period," she says. "The more colorful the plant, the more nutrients it has, so go for oranges, reds and deep greens."


If one thing is true about the average American eater, it’s that he likes his meat. But "meat" means anything from processed substances like bologna to prime beef to fish sticks.

"If we’re following a true health model, people who eat very little animal protein live longer and have less cancer and less disease," Smith says. "This is not very realistic for most Americans, and I don’t want to say ‘stay away.’ You can eat whatever you want, just moderate it. Try limiting red meat consumption and eating more poultry, eggs (the perfect protein) and non-meat food sources like soybeans, dry beans, peas or nuts."


Dairy is one of the most controversial subjects in the food world. Experts argue endlessly for its healthful and harmful qualities, and Smith admits that it is not necessary to a balanced diet.

"There are other ways to get what you need, and a lot of people can’t handle it," she said. "However, it’s a good choice for people who can as it is filled with nutrients. Calcium-fortified soy milk or orange juice are great compromises."

Cheese is also a non-essential but tasty and perfectly acceptable addition to your larder – in moderation, of course.


When asked if there are any safe snacks on the "cookie aisle," Smith is blunt.

"Do not go down that aisle," she chuckles. "Make your own, then you’ll know what’s in them." She reemphasized that processed foods rarely have any redeeming nutritional qualities, while suggesting that if you can’t resist, go for the real thing.

"If you’re going to buy an Oreo, buy an Oreo. Fat-free foods are often higher in calories and sugar, and fat is essential ... we must become one with our food."


In addition to creating a balanced food pyramid that works for you, be aware of which items within each group are better than others. This means looking at labels, comparing them and going for organics when you can find and afford them.

Making a shopping list is another good tactic as you will be less likely to grab random things off the nearest, strategically placed shelf. This ties in to planning menus before you hit the store, thereby looking ahead to wholesome meals made with good raw materials.

"You’ll spend a lot less money, and the money you do spend will get you a lot further," Smith says. "But people are creatures of habit. We’re getting more and more overweight, and until people have a major reason to change, they stay in a rut. They go to the store and buy the same 10 or 20 things every time; they don’t buy seasonally; they get further and further away from their roots the more harried they get ... It’s not that hard to eat healthy; you just have to make time for it."

© 2006, The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho).

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.