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A Practical Primer on Grocery Shopping

While M&M articles are normally reference-laden and full of information on the specific understanding and application of a given drug, family of drugs, or method of training, this will not be one of those articles. Instead, this will be aimed at those who aren’t fully familiar with how to best go about getting healthy foods in today’s grocery stores or how to alter their habits while cutting or bulking. Whether you are a college student who is just now buying for yourself or a veteran ‘bro’ looking for tips on some better choices, this is for you.

Shop the Perimeter

One of the things I’ve tried to instill in my friends and family over the years is this principle. In any given grocery store, the layout is almost always a series of aisles stocked with various wares surrounded by produce, seafood, meat, and bakery sections. Because the less-processed and generally healthier things are found in these areas, this is where most of your shopping should be done. Couple this with the fact that most humans cease shopping either when they have reached their allotted budget limit or when they perceive adequate food in their cart, and your best bet for keeping good things in your pantry and bad things sparse is to start your shopping with a lap of the perimeter.

First Stop: Produce

Quite possibly my favorite section, the produce area offers the most colorful and seasonal choices you are likely to see in the store. Look for things that are on sale or have large, obnoxious signs pointing to them; while you might feel ashamed momentarily for giving in to the most basic and primitive forms of marketing, keep in mind that the items on sale are generally the ones that the grocer has in largest quantity. This usually means that the items in question are in season, and as such will taste better and be fresher due to faster turnover from lower pricing. No matter what kind of diet you are on, be it bulking, cutting, or maintenance, produce is a requisite part of any program.

For bulking or maintenance, don’t be afraid of fruit. Lately there have been some concerns over fructose given its hepatic metabolism and contributions to some not-so-desirable conditions in the human body. Keep in mind that these ill-effects occur as a result of immoderate fructose intake, thanks to processed foods full of high-fructose corn-syrup and the like; most fruit contains relatively little fructose compared to these highly-processed items, and they bring fiber, anti-oxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals to the party as well. As long as you are getting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as part of a reasonable diet, there’s no reason to feel ambivalent about eating the sweeter offerings of this section.

For cutting, since most of us prefer to go the low-carb route, the rules of engagement change a little bit. Vegetables and leafy greens are favored over fruit in this instance to keep carbohydrate intake low and fiber high. Go for darker greens (spinach being my personal favorite), as they are more nutrient-dense and mineral-laden than their paler brethren. In the vegetable department, go with what you like, but because of the nature of low-carb diets and difficulty in supplementing it with pills, I try to include veggies with higher potassium concentrations to avoid muscle cramps and keep my electrolyte balance happy. Artichokes, asparagus, avocado, celery, romaine lettuce, and spinach all excel in this category with little carbohydrate content to boot.

Carnal Love

Now that you have plenty of fruits and veggies, it’s on to the seafood, meat, and deli departments. I suggest stopping by the seafood department first, since fish is a very healthy part of any diet. Again, look for things on sale, and get what looks fresh. Opt for fattier fish over the leaner ones to get a nice chunk of polyunsaturated fats with your meal; Salmon and Trout are best here.

Concerning the other meats, again, go with what you like in moderation. I prefer a warm and bloody sirloin, but I try to go with a different kind of meat every night for my dinner. Try out all the kinds to see what you like; saturated fats abound here, but again, in moderation, this is not a concern. You’re getting plenty of B-vitamins, iron, protein, and other goodies, so indulge reasonably and enjoy it.

The deli area is somewhat of a gamble depending on your diet. Pre-sliced, pre-cooked meats are very convenient for the busy bro, but other than a generous portion of salt, you generally don’t have much of an idea what is in those things. The question of how exactly turkey can be made cylindrical puzzles me to this day. On a low-carb, hypocaloric diet, however, salt can be a very good thing, so in this case, convenience and utility go hand in hand.

Bunched in with this crowd is the dairy/egg section, and some need to tread lightly here. Yogurt can be found here with all its bacterial goodness. I opt for the light, low-fat kinds as I prefer to get my carbs and fat elsewhere. Eggs are an excellent source of protein and some good fats, but for more of the good and less of the not-so-good, use more egg whites than yolks for breakfast. Milk is tricky on account of the lactose intolerance borne by many people and the fact that some people just tend to get fat when they drink. Still, others can do perfectly fine at a gallon a day. Use your own judgment and gauge your own body’s reaction, then act accordingly. Again, I prefer to get my fats elsewhere, so I opt for 1% or skim milk.

For you low-carbers, I recommend the chocolate “Carb Countdown” dairy-like beverage-stuff. Most of the lactose has been removed, and it’s a nice source of protein that can lend much-needed variety to an intense cut. Cottage cheese, the great slow-digesting casein king, also resides in this area, and if you can stomach it for maintenance or bulking, then by all means, go for it.

And Aubrey was her Name

Now we arrive at the bakery. If you’re cutting out carbs, passing by this area may be painful, but with the exception of low-carb flaxseed breads and the like, most of this is not for you. For bulkers or maintenance people, opt for whole-grains and seed breads. The idea here is slow-digestion and high-fiber, both of which will keep your blood-glucose—and consequently, insulin—steady throughout the day. There are plenty of other wonderful confections to be found here, but most of them should be saved for special occasions, so use your judgment.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Bread doesn’t need to be refrigerated, but meat and (some) produce do, so why didn’t we stop here first?” The reason is that the moment you put something cold in your cart, you started a countdown, and the amount of time you have to spend in the aisles justifying Cheez-its and Oreos has been reduced, and you have a better chance of sticking to your diet on the healthier side of things.


Naturally, the “Shop the Perimeter” rule, like all rules, has its exceptions. There exist some things in the aisles that are not only acceptable, but extremely good.

Oats – The staple carbohydrate of any experienced bro’s pantry comes in many flavors and bastard varieties, and as nice as peaches and cream sounds, those little brown paper bags are full of sugar and refined oats, which more or less defeats the purpose of getting oats in the first place, which is to provide slow-digesting carbohydrates with a decent amount of fiber. Stick to the kind that come in big cylinders, and look for “raw,” “old fashioned,” or any other words that differentiate them from their “one minute” cousins, as the former are less processed and still cook up fairly quickly.

Canned Fish – Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time cutting or bulking has put down his share of tuna or salmon from a can. It’s quick, it’s proteinaceous, it’s salty, and it has good fats. Learn to love it and you’ll soon learn to hate it, but it will help you on your way towards a healthier life when you need a quick meal.

Nuts – Another food that requires caution but has its rewards, nuts are a beautiful thing on a cut, bulk, or day of maintenance. They have relatively little carbohydrate content, some fiber, a decent amount of protein, and most varieties are chock-full of minerals and monounsaturated fats with a little bit of polyunsaturated ones as well. Opt for macadamia, almonds, peanuts, and walnuts, but be careful, as they are very calorie-dense and easy to overeat.

Low-calorie Flavoring Agents – more apropos on a cut, this is the family of things that will make what little food you are eating taste a little better and more sundry when you get tired of your restrictions. This includes low-calorie salad dressings, salsas, mustards, herbs, spices, and powdered low-calorie drink mixes. Be wary of “sugar-free” as this does not inherently mean that the carbohydrate content of a given food is low. Always look on the nutrition labels to discern exactly what you’re getting, calorically.

Beverages – Opt for calorie-free or very low-calorie beverages, be they carbonated or otherwise, as it is very easy to chug away large quantities of them without realizing it. If on a cut and using stimulants, be conscious of the caffeine content of what you’re consuming for the same reason. Green Tea is an excellent choice; if you don’t know why, I refer you to David Tolson’s article which gives a nice overview of its benefits. Ignore your friends if they chide you about the carcinogenic properties of artificial sweeteners; in the case of Splenda/sucralose, the claim is unfounded, and in the other cases, you are not getting sufficient amounts of the sweeteners to even mildly concern yourself. Besides, your risk of disease would probably be far higher if you opted for the sugary varieties your friends drink en masse.

Vinegar – Pick your favorite flavor if you don’t feel like capping sodium acetate. Why?


Putting it All Together

Naturally, there are plenty of other exceptions in addition to the ones listed supra, and there are plenty of things to be found in the perimeter that are unhealthy choices. In the end, what you buy and eat it is solely your choice, for better or worse. These guidelines were meant to start you on your way toward healthier eating, but they are in no way a complete guide on the subject. Reading as much as you can on proper nutrition and learning to apply it in your own pantry is the best way to finish the process.