Grocery Shopping For The Food Gatekeeper: The Good and The Not So Good

Grocery cart with foodHeading to the supermarket? Don’t forget your coupons! Have your shopping list? Checked it twice?

When shopping for food, think nutrition as well. Below are some nutrients and their food sources that are important for your family, as well as some that should be limited. Reading the Nutrition Facts Label on foods and beverages will aid you in determining the value of each item regarding many of these nutrients.



  • Calcium is important for everyone, but especially for children and young adults up to about 30 years old.
  • Calcium sources: Low-fat/fat-free milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir; calcium-fortified foods; sardines.

Vitamin D

  • Vitamin D is important to enhance calcium absorption, and has been found to potentially lower the risk of some chronic diseases. It is therefore important to all.
  • Vitamin D sources: fish, eggs, fortified milk products, spreads and other foodstuffs, cod liver oil, sunlight.


  • Iron is important for children, as well as women who are pregnant, breastfeeding and pre-menopausal.
  • Iron sources: Liver (high in cholesterol), lean red meat, poultry dark meat, shrimp, tuna, dried beans & peas, dark green leafy vegetables, enriched grains, fortified cereals, raisins, tofu.
  • Heme iron (from meat sources) is much better absorbed than non-heme iron (from non-meat sources).
  • Vitamin C will enhance absorption of iron from non-meat sources (non-heme iron)
  • Vitamin C sources: citrus fruits and their juices (oranges, grapefruits, pineapples, lemons, limes), strawberries, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes.
  • Fruits and vegetables in general aid non-heme iron absorption due to their vitamin C content and organic acids, such as citric acid. The vitamin A and carotenoids in fruits and vegetables also reduce the negative effect that other food substances (polyphenols, phytates) have on iron absorption.
  • Eating meat sources of iron with non-meat sources will enhance the absorption of the non-heme iron.
  • Cooking with an iron skillet will significantly increase the iron content of the food because iron from the pan is leached into the food. This is particularly true for acidic foods, such as tomato paste.
  • Tea, coffee and cocoa will prevent absorption of non-heme iron, so don’t drink within 90 minutes of eating iron-rich food from a non-meat source. It is certain plant compounds (polyphenols) that interfere with absorption, not caffeine.


  • Fiber is important for all. The average American gets about ½ the recommended 20-35 grams of fiber on a daily basis.
  • Fiber sources: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dried beans & peas, fiber-enhanced foods.

Vitamin A

  • Important for all, but particularly for youth because of its role in developing immune function, vision, cellular communication and reproduction.
  • Vitamin A sources: sweet potatoes, beef liver, spinach, carrots, pumpkin, cantaloupe, sweet red peppers, mangos, black-eyed peas, apricots, broccoli, part-skim ricotta cheese, fortified cereals, fortified milk products, baked beans, eggs, summer squash.

Some food components should be limited. This is again where reading the Nutrition Facts Label, and in some cases the ingredient list, is important. Check carefully to be sure the foods and beverages you purchase have small amounts of the items below. These foods and beverages should occupy a much smaller area on your shopping list!


  • The average American should keep their sodium levels at below 2300 milligrams. Those needing to limit their sodium even more – those with high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, over 50 years old or African-American – should keep their levels at around 1500 milligrams daily. The Nutrition Facts label will tell you exactly how many milligrams of sodium are contained in a serving. Use this to determine how much the food contributes to the recommended daily limit.
  • Potential sodium sources: deli meats, canned goods, vegetable juices, soups, sauces/marinades/flavorings, spaghetti sauce, spices, salted nuts, pretzels, pickles, olives,  packaged foods, condiments (e.g. ketchup, mustard, relish).
  • Packaging label claims
    • Sodium-free = less than 5 milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving
    • Very low-sodium = 35 mg or less per serving
    • Low-sodium = less than 140 mg per serving
    • Reduced sodium = sodium reduced by 25%
    • Unsalted = no salt added, but contains the sodium that is naturally part of the food
  • There are many different substances that contain sodium, but most have “sodium” in their names. So when reading an ingredient list, look for “sodium” as part of the ingredient name.
  • One major source of sodium comes from the fare we consume when eating out. Watch for sauces and cheeses high in sodium. Don’t be shy about asking to have your food prepared without added salt.

Trans Fats

  • Trans fats should be avoided by all, particularly those at high risk of heart disease, as these fats will not only raise your LDL (bad cholesterol) but decrease your HDL (good cholesterol).
  • Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have hydrogen added (hydrogenated) to increase shelf-life of packaged foods. They are also used by food establishments as cheap oil that can be re-used many times in deep frying. Trans fats are also found naturally in some foods, but in lower levels than added to commercial products.
  • Potential Sources: cooking oils, margarines, processed snack foods like chips and crackers, baked goods such as cookies, doughnuts and pastries, fried fast foods such as French fries, fried chicken and fish.
  • Now that trans fat content has gotten so much bad press and must be on the Nutrition Facts label, many food manufacturers and fast food establishments have stopped using it. Beware of it still lingering in some food products, even though the label may say “0” trans fat. If a product has less than .5 grams of it, it can be stated as “0” on the Nutrition Facts label. Therefore, it is advisable to also look on the ingredients list for “hydrogenated fat,” as this is a signal that trans fats lurk within. Even if the food contains less than .5 grams, eating several servings daily or several different foods with this amount will add up to too much. Most health organizations advise to avoid trans fat completely, since you will get a small amount naturally from some foods.

Saturated Fats

  • Everyone should limit saturated fat, especially those at high risk for heart disease. This type of fat can increase blood cholesterol, which can lead to atherosclerosis and heart disease.
  • Saturated fat sources: Animal meat and animal products, including lard and dairy products (unless fat-free), and tropical oils such as coconut, palm and palm kernel.
  • Remove all visible fat and/or skin when preparing meat to reduce the amount of saturated fat.


  • Young children up to 2 years old need cholesterol to build cells. Anyone older than that should limit their cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams daily. Some people are more susceptible than others, but dietary cholesterol can increase blood cholesterol levels, leading to atherosclerosis and heart disease.
  • Cholesterol sources: All foods containing animal fat, particularly cheese, egg yolks, beef, pork, poultry, fish and shrimp. Human breast milk contains significant amounts also (remember, children under 2 years need cholesterol for growth and development).

Use this information to create your next grocery shopping list. Keeping healthy choices around the house helps ensure that your family’s food choices will get a nutritional A+!

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