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Healthy cooking starts at the grocery store
* Don't go when hungry.
* Allow enough time to read labels and compare foods.
* Look through the food you already have at home.
* Check out the sales in the newspaper grocery inserts.
* Look up some low-fat, low-calorie or heart-healthy recipes to try.
Healthy cooking doesn't start in the kitchen. It starts at the grocery store, according to Jacinta Krych, outpatient nutritionist at Yuma Regional Medical Center.
“We have to buy the food before we start cooking,” she noted.
But going to the store and trying to choose “good” foods might be intimidating. Where do you start?
The nutritionist offered suggestions on what to look for and how to make good choices when shopping for food.
Krych recommends making a grocery list before you go to the store, shopping around the perimeter of the store and asking when selecting an item: “Is this food the best option for me? Is there something lower in salt and fat?”
Sodium and fat – these are the biggest enemies.
“Sodium can increase your blood pressure and cause extra fluid in the body. Fat can increase cholesterol and the waistline,” Krych noted.
How much sodium should someone ingest in a day? No more than 2,000 milligrams (mg) per day, which is equivalent to one teaspoon.
Krych pointed out that this includes the salt contained in all food consumed in a day, not just the salt that comes from the shaker, which should be limited to one-eighth of a teaspoon (250 mg).
And when trying to figure out how much sodium is in a food item, remember to look at the serving size listed on the nutrition label and multiply the sodium milligrams by the serving.
However, Krych said, not all fat is unhealthy, especially if it comes from vegetables. She listed the top three healthy oils as those that come from olives, canola and peanuts. Avocados, margarine and nuts are also good, with the exception of cashews, which are too oily.
Foods with trans fats should be avoided. If it has saturated fat, it should be less than a gram.
Tackling the store by food groups, Krych started in the produce department, “where you should be spending most of your time.”
You might think, “Salad, where can we go wrong?” Plenty, if you top with “unhealthy” ingredients, such as sugar, salad dressing and oils. Keep these to a minimum.
When it comes to vegetables, what's best – fresh, frozen or canned? “Fresh is the best option,” she said.
Frozen is good too, but it can go from good to bad if it's smothered in cream or butter sauce.
Canned vegetables might have extra salt, so look for canned products that have no added salt.
Canned soups are notorious for being loaded with sodium. Some have an entire day's worth in a single can. Even the “reduced sodium” soups are “still very, very high” in sodium,” Krych said.
In this case, homemade soups might be the best bet. “It takes longer to make things from scratch at home,” but it's well worth it, she noted.
Fresh fruit is almost fail-proof. Krych likes to challenge her clients to try “something new,” like jicama. If choosing canned fruit, make sure it has no added sugar.
In the meat department, “look for lean and fresh (or) frozen meats,” Krych said.
Ground meat should be 90 percent lean or higher. If it's 75 percent, drain the fat when cooking it.
And remember that white meat is healthier; chicken and turkey have less fat than dark meats. But chicken breasts should be cooked without the skin.
Although fish is generally higher in calories, it comes from “healthy fat.” However, anything breaded and deep fried erases the healthy benefits.
The more processed a food is, the more fat and salt it has. Think hot dogs, sausages and brats.
Krych suggests trying meatless options, such as soy.
In the bread aisle, look for whole grains versus processed grains. The first ingredient should say “whole” (wheat, rye, etc.)
“Every thing made with flour, you can find in a whole grain option,” Krych said.
As for rice, it's better to replace it with an “exotic” grain, such as quinoa. Most packages have recipes on the back.
For dairy, choose low-fat options, such as low-fat yogurt and 1 percent skim milk. “Two percent is still high,” Krych said, adding that milk can be substituted with unsweetened almond milk.
White cheese is better than yellow cheese. And “Velveeta is not a real dairy product,” she quipped.
Tub margarine is healthier because it has vegetable oil versus the animal fat in butter. Stick butter is the worst offender because it's high in salt and animal fat.
Boxed or frozen meals are not very heart healthy because they are “very, very high” in salt and fat, Krych said.
Smart Ones are the best choice but they're still high in salt, she added.
For seasonings, Krych recommends Mrs. Dash, which comes in a variety of flavors. Many condiments are available in no-salt or low-salt versions.
When it comes to snacks, go for the scoop-it-yourself candy bins, which are lower in sodium. Popcorn is a whole grain, but pay attention to what's on it. The 100-calorie packs are a good choice.
Some good snack alternatives are Pop Chips, Quaker rice cakes and kale chips, which could be made at home (recipes abound on the Internet).
And, lastly, fear not, chocolate lovers. The sweet treat is good for you in moderation because it contains antioxidants. But look for dark chocolate that is at least 60 percent cocoa.
In the end, Krych hopes her clients remember one thing: “The less processed the food, the healthier.”