Why You Shouldn’t Skip the Middle Aisles of the Grocery Store

As a nutritionist, I hear a decent amount of health myths and misinformation on a daily basis. While I strongly believe there are different ways of eating and that health and nutrition work differently for everyone, there is one piece of advice that always gets my goat. What is it, you ask? The tidbit that tells people to shop the perimeter of the grocery store and to completely ignore the middle aisles.

The 2 Main Problems with Avoiding the Middle Aisles of the Grocery Store

Yes, of course you’ll find lots of unhealthy foods in these middle aisles — sugary cereals, processed snacks, sodas, candy, refined grains abound! — but there are two important things to consider.

First, unhealthy foods can be found in the outer aisles of the store, too. This tip can make some shoppers feel like they can shop with abandon if they stick to the perimeter. The truth is, though, the perimeter is where you can find yogurts (and yogurt alternatives) that have more sugar than a single serving of soda. And processed meats and cheeses. And sugary juices and salad dressings. The point: Just because you shop the outer aisles doesn’t mean you’ll avoid unhealthy foods. Some of the labels on these products can be sneaky and deceptive!

The second thing to remember, and most importantly, is that there are some truly nutrient-dense foods found within the inner aisles. These foods can provide nutrition when you need to pull a meal together between grocery trips, and they help fill in the gaps of nutrients when combined with fresh and frozen foods.

Below are some of my favorite items to buy in the middle aisles of the grocery store.

Healthy Foods to Get in the Middle Aisles of the Grocery Store

1. Whole Grains

I’m talking things like whole-grain brown rice, whole-grain oats, quinoa, barley, and other ancient grains such as wild rice, amaranth, millet, farro, and Kamut wheat. See, whole grains have been repeatedly shown to prevent heart disease and colon cancer, assist with blood sugar control, and much more. What you’ll want to avoid is whole-grain “products” that are processed and more refined. (Skip the chips, cookies, cakes, and highly processed breads and crackers that may say “whole grain” on the label — they’re not as healthy as you’d think.)

2. Nuts and Seeds

Here’s a bonus tip: Shop for raw almonds, pecans, and walnuts in the baking aisle. You can usually find larger packages there for a decent price. These nuts have healthy fats, are free of cholesterol, and have been shown to support health on multiple levels. While you’re shopping, also look for healthy seeds — like chia, flax, and hemp seeds — which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats that support heart health.

3. Spices and Herbs

Dried single spices and herbs (cinnamon, basil, oregano, ginger, etc!) are true gems that should be in every kitchen! Not only do these ingredients provide fun flavors that reduce the need for added salts and sugars, but they also contain a wealth of antioxidants, too. Many spices and herbs can support digestion and reduce blood pressure, and others have been shown to improve skin health. Just skip the blends and seasonings with lots of added salts, sugar, and ingredients you don’t recognize.

4. Condiments

I realize this is going to bring up a whole “what is a condiment” debate, but I think salsa counts. Get one that’s low in the salt and sugar department and you’ve got a great ingredient for salads and sandwiches. I also love mustard, hot sauce, and apple cider vinegar for DIY marinades and salad dressings. Before you put anything in your cart, though, check the sodium content, which tends to be high in condiments. Ideally, you want something that’s less than 100 milligrams per serving.

5. Nut Butters

I originally had these with condiments, but ultimately decided that nut butters (like almond, cashew, and peanut butter) deserved their own category. Shopping tip: Always read the ingredient list, and avoid options with chemicals, hydrogenated oils, and refined sugars or high-fructose corn syrup.

This mini list of five things shouldn’t sell the rest of these middle aisles short. There are lots of other healthy finds worth your time, like green tea, no-salt-added canned vegetables, natural cocoa powder, and unsweetened dried fruits. You probably get my point, though. There are lots of healthy foods to be found in the middle aisles of the grocery store. So, let’s not be so fast to totally dismiss them!

It’s best to just check the ingredient list instead of writing off entire sections of grocery stores. Except for the racks by the registers — you can skip the unhealthy impulse buys there.

Do you shop the middle aisles of the grocery store?

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