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doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000437032.55798.36

Buy Right, Eat Right

Lewis, Darcy

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A heart-healthy eating plan starts with buying the right food

Don't let your efforts to eat a heart-healthy diet get derailed at the grocery store. You'll give your healthy eating efforts a boost if you shop strategically and know what to buy. The most successful shopping trips start with a plan before you even set foot in the store. First, know what you already have on hand and what you intend to buy. Plan your meals for the week, watch the ads for good sales and search for coupons online if you use them.

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The latest fad may be extreme couponing, but even casual couponers enjoy saving money. Unfortunately, most coupons are for processed foods best avoided by people who want to eat healthy.

But there are exceptions. “You don't have to give up on coupons entirely,” says Sandra Dunbar, R.N., the Charles Howard Candler professor of nursing at Emory University in Atlanta. “Just be selective about which ones you use. Saving a little bit of money is not worth the effects of unhealthy food.”

Here are six items for which coupons are often available. They make great staples for your heart-healthy pantry, so go ahead and stock up when you find a good buy.

* Whole grain pasta: Since these varieties can be more expensive than traditional pastas, manufacturers often issue coupons to tempt buyers.

* Jarred pasta sauces: “Just add frozen vegetables to jarred sauce and serve over whole-wheat pasta—that's a quick, healthy meal if you choose a low-sodium sauce with no added sugars,” says Kristie J. Lancaster, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor of nutrition at New York University in New York City.

* Yogurt: Presweetened varieties contain excessive amounts of sugar, so you're better off buying unsweetened varieties, then adding your own fresh fruit to taste.

* Peanut butter: Look for the natural style that contains only peanuts and salt as the ingredients. Avoid brands with hydrogenated fats and added sugars if possible. Try to find a low-sodium variety.

* Canned fruit: Choose varieties packed in water or their own juice.

* Seasoned frozen vegetables or meals in a bag: These can be huge timesavers, but compare the sodium levels of different brands before buying, even when you have a coupon.

As an added bonus, many grocery chains have started giving out coupons to their frequent shoppers for the good stuff: fresh fruits and vegetables. Those coupons are always worth using!

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Make a list: Be as complete as you can, and don't deviate from your plan. “Knowing what foods you want to keep in your pantry is important, so you should shop with a list and stick to it,” Lancaster says. “Don't be tempted just because an item has a good sale price.”

But if you can avoid temptation, Dunbar thinks it's okay to go with the flow—up to a point. “Make a list but be flexible,” she says. “If you get to the store and find heart-healthy foods that you like on sale, buy them. Those are the kinds of foods you want to fill your pantry with.”

You'll also want to allow enough time at the store so you can read labels without feeling rushed into making poor food choices. “Reading labels is important but time-consuming until you get used to doing it,” says Dunbar. “Expect shopping to take longer the first few times. I have patients who tell me it took two hours to get through the store at first but they learned quickly.”

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Avoid shopping when hungry. It's harder to resist unhealthy foods when you haven't eaten for a while. Try to select most of your food from the store's perimeter. Nearly all stores stock their fresh produce, meat and fish along their outer walls, helping you to avoid the more processed foods on many aisles. But what else can you do to keep on track once you get to the store?

Heather Rasmussen, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, suggests learning to think like a food marketer. “Be aware that the items the store places at eye level are there for a reason—they sell the most,” she says. “They are usually the biggest brands, which are often the most expensive and tend to be less heart healthy than the items stocked on the top and bottom shelves.”

If you enjoy the time-honored ritual of tasting in-store samples of new items or prepared foods when offered, be realistic. “Marketers know in-store demonstrations and sampling really do sell products,” Dunbar says. “Look at the ingredients of whatever is being sampled before trying because you will probably buy it if you like it. Don't even taste that item if it is high in fat, sodium or added sugars.”

Finally, keep an eye out for the American Heart Association's Heart-Check mark to simplify your shopping trips. If you see the name of the American Heart Association along with the familiar red heart with a white check mark on a package, you'll know that item meets the AHA's criteria for a heart-healthy food. But not all red heart logos are from the American Heart Association, so look for the AHA name to be sure. To date, more than 900 items have been certified to carry the Heart-Check mark. For more information, visit

© 2013 by the American Heart Association