Have you ever been advised to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store in order to make the healthiest food choices when procuring your weekly food bounty? I see this bit of advice given frequently—by respected nutrition professionals as well as the nutrition-expert-next-door alike. While I understand the idea—that some of the freshest, most wholesome foods are usually located around the edges of the supermarket (such as fruits, vegetables, fresh meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products)—it simply doesn’t pan out in the real world for a couple reasons.
A simple Google search for recommendations on healthy grocery shopping invariably leads to the “shop the perimeter for health” advice, accompanied by one of these warnings (taken verbatim from various health websites):
“The higher-calorie items lurk in the center aisles...”
“Because the ready-to-eat foods are usually lurking in the middle aisles...”
“Avoid center aisles where the junk food lurks.”
First, I must say that there seems to be a lot of lurking going on in the middle of the grocery store, but that’s beside the point. So, all of the above statements are pretty true—quite a bit of the higher-calorie, ready-to-eat, highly processed, and junky foods do “lurk” in the interior aisles. On the other hand:
1. A lot of great and healthy stuff “lurks” in the middle supermarket aisles, too
Nuts, nut and seed butters, and olive oils (and even coconut oil for the cavemen) are located in the middle. Canned legumes, diced tomatoes, pumpkin, tuna, and salmon are just a few of the many healthy minimally-processed items that you aren’t going to find on the outskirts. Some of the most important cooking ingredients—spices—which impart amazing flavor complexity to dishes are most always located in the middle. Dried beans and grains, which can be part of a balanced eating style—barley, farro, bulgur, oats, wild rice, millet, quinoa—are all found in the center lanes. Same with frozen fruits and vegetables. Cooking and baking staples for me—chicken stock, a variety of vinegars, and whole grain flours—yup, you guessed it—are also in the middle.
2. There’s plenty of questionable stuff on the outskirts
Since I love food, grocery shopping, cooking, and eating, I’ve spent an obscene number of hours wandering through supermarkets in various regions of the country. Like you and me, they’re all a little different; however, most stores have a prepared deli foods section and a bakery on the outskirts—clearly plenty of chances here to go wrong. Some stores have their processed meat section right next to the dairy section—another example of a perimeter option that certainly isn’t a free-for-all. Indeed, the dairy section itself is full of sugary or artificially-sweetened (pick your “poison”) yogurts, high-sugar fruit juice-yogurt drinks, highly processed, artificial margarines, and so forth. Then there are the stores with all the carbonated beverages and sodas piled up on the edges or the ones with the frozen section (and dizzying array of highly-processed, packaged goods and ice cream products) lining the perimeter. And let's not forget about some of the deluxe supermarkets which have mini-liquor stores on the outside edge.
I’m not saying ice cream, an occasional bakery cookie, or your favorite cognac can’t be part of your healthy eating style—they can—but as you can see, the “shop the perimeter for health” advice is really only a nice idea in theory.
In summary, there are better and less-optimal food items located all throughout the grocery store. Use your common sense, pick fresh, whole, and minimally-processed foods most often, and you’ll come out on top, without the overly-simplistic perimeter-shopping advice. If you really want bonus points, an even better place for food procurement is the farmers market or your own garden. ;)
In the meantime, I’ll be lurking in the middle aisles. We’re out of toilet paper.