The next time you go grocery shopping, take a look at what is in your cart.
Since the first step toward a healthy diet is buying nutritious food, what you put in your cart says a lot about what you and your family are eating.
Most of us know that eating out increases the chance that we will consume too many calories and too much fat, sugar and salt.
For this reason, shopping for groceries and eating meals at home can lead to a healthier diet, as long you are buying healthy food to begin with.
If you are like the typical American, your grocery cart falls short of recommendations for good health.
In fact, a USDA report published in November indicates that food purchases have less than a 60 percent adherence with current dietary recommendations.
The report also shows that people who live in the Northeast and West tend to make healthier choices than people living in the South and Midwest, where obesity is more common.
This report also reveals that we are purchasing the opposite of what is recommended.
People bought four times as much refined grains as recommended but only one-quarter of the recommended whole grains.
Our carts are missing fresh vegetables and fruits but contain too many processed frozen foods.
We buy less fish and poultry and more red meat than we should. And, finally, we bring home far more beverages and foods containing added sugars than is recommended.
The contents of our shopping carts closely mirrors the typical American diet, suggesting that we eat what we buy.
A diet high in refined grains, red meat and added sugars and low in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean sources of protein is linked to obesity, heart disease and some cancers.
Shopping habits can have a big impact on health, so changing what we buy can be beneficial.
The good news is that there are a few simple steps you can take to improve the healthfulness of your grocery purchases.
First, plan your meals before you go shopping, make a list and stick to it. Impulse purchases, the things we see and just can’t pass by, are likely to be unhealthy foods.
Second, shop the perimeter of the store. This is where you find most of the fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat. The interior aisles contain primarily packaged and processed foods that tend to be high in sugar, salt and fat.
Third, buy fresh fruits and vegetables when you can. Frozen vegetables are a good alternative, too. Be careful with canned vegetables, which can be high in salt, and fruit juices, which may contain added sugars.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Grocery stores are designed to get you to buy more of the most profitable foods, from the floor plan to the displays and placement of the food items.
You have to be vigilant to avoid temptation and make good choices, but you don’t have to be perfect.
Even relatively small purchasing changes can improve your diet and your health.
Try buying more fresh vegetables this week and focus on whole grains next week.
Over time, you will find that your cart will be filled with healthier foods for you and your family.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.