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Tips for heart smart grocery shopping

Paoli Hospital February 12, 2015 General Wellness

By now, you’ve probably heard about the important role that nutrition plays in maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle. Substitutions like salmon instead of steak or flavored water instead of soda are easy to make, but some nutritional decisions aren’t as simple.

A trip to the grocery store presents you with literally thousands of food options, which can overwhelm even the most health-conscious shopper. When you’re trying to navigate the aisles, it can be difficult to tell the difference between heart smart choices and heart health risks.

Fortunately, you don’t have to play a guessing game anymore. Mary Ann Martin, dietitian at Paoli Hospital, explores what common product labels really mean so that the next time you’re faced with a decision, you can make the right one for your heart health.

Fat labels

Low fat, fat free, no fat, reduced fat…is it any wonder that shoppers are easily confused?

Products that claim to be fat free often make up for what they lack in fat with other ingredients like sugar, flour, salt and other additives. While these ingredients add taste, they can increase the number of calories per serving without any added nutritional value. Low-fat foods are a better option than their fat-free counterparts, but they have the same characteristics: added ingredients and less nutritional value.

Instead of choosing a fat-free or low-fat version of your favorite food, opt for a reduced fat option. Reduced fat versions contain at least 25 percent less fat than the original product, which make it a healthier option, but not enough to require added ingredients to satisfy your taste buds. If a reduced fat option isn’t available, adjust your serving size of the full fat product instead.

Sodium labels

High levels of sodium can increase your risk for many health issues, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. And even if you’re not sprinkling salt on your food, chances are you’re eating more sodium than you realize.

“Many people don’t realize that processed foods like canned soups, microwave meals and bread are high-sodium culprits,” says Martin. “Although you may not be actively adding salt to your meal, you could still be taking in more sodium than you think.”

To help shake your salt habit, look for low sodium and sodium-free foods whenever possible. These varieties typically contain 140 milligrams or less of sodium, which won’t put too much of a dent in your daily intake.

Keep an eye out for imposters, says Martin. Foods labeled ‘light’ or ‘reduced’ sodium are not as healthy, and contain only 25 percent less sodium than the regular product, which can still be too much.

Sugar labels

Sugars may make food especially tasty, but it’s also a source of empty calories with little to no nutritional value. Like sodium, added sugar is also hidden in some popular foods, like canned sauces and fruits, granola bars, and yogurt.

When it comes to choosing a product that contains sugar, focus on the list of ingredients instead of the nutrition label. If any of the first five ingredients include mention of sugar or other sweeteners, like agave nectar, honey, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup or brown sugar, it's better to put it back on the shelf.

In addition to familiarizing yourself with food labels, don’t forget to include healthy staples like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and fish into your diet.