Guest RD: A Grocery Store Dietitian

September 2, 2014

When I went back to school to become a registered dietitian there were two paths I was interested in: private practice and working for a grocery store. Thus, I love today’s post by Utah-based Registered Dietitian Kayla Womeldorff! She works for Harmons and has some great tips for navigating the aisles.

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When I tell people that I work in a grocery store, they generally look confused. After a moment, they almost always ask me, “So what exactly do you DO as a dietitian in a grocery store?” And I understand the confusion. At first, it sounds like a pretty random place to have a healthcare professional. But really, what better place for an RD than where people are actually making decisions about what foods to buy? I am Kayla Womeldorff, one of four registered dietitians working for Harmons, a small, family owned grocery store chain with 16 stores in Utah. Before you get an image in your head of a strictly health foods or natural grocery store, let me tell you that while we do sell all the products you would usually find in those stores, we also carry conventional foods. You can buy your organic tofu right alongside your regular soda or bag of chips, if you so desire.

But back to the question at hand: What exactly do grocery store dietitians do? While I can’t speak to grocery store RDs everywhere, here is what I do at Harmons:

Individual Nutrition Counseling

We each have our own offices in our home stores where we are able to conduct individual nutrition counseling to both customers and employees. We counsel clients in many areas, including sports nutrition, weight loss/gain/maintenance, diabetes, heart disease, and general nutrition.

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Store Tours and Workshops

This is one of my favorite parts of being a grocery store dietitian, and also probably the most helpful to customers: actually getting to show people foods on the shelf, and helping them incorporate foods they love into a healthy diet as well as showing them new products that maybe they hadn’t heard of or thought to try. We have store tours for specific health conditions, like diabetes and celiac disease/gluten free, as well as a general healthy living tour. We also provide tours and workshops for groups (like scout troops, for instance), as well as Lunch n’ Learns in the community and nutrition workshops in our stores for customers. Three of our stores also have cooking schools, and we team up with our chefs to teach healthy cooking classes.

Behind the Scenes Work with Departments

We have behind the scenes teams for our grocery, fresh meat, bakery, delicatessen and produce departments with a dietitian on each team to help make sure that Harmons is carrying the highest quality products for our customers. For example, our delicatessen does not use MSG, and our bakery has moved to using real cream and butter in our store made products rather than ingredients containing hydrogenated oils.

At Harmons we also have a program called Dietitians Choice, which we created to help make shopping for healthy food more convenient for our customers. We set nutritional criteria for almost every category of food in our stores based on the most current nutrition research, and tagged the items that met our nutrition criteria. (You can find out more about that here.)

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We also have Healthy Checkout lanes, which only include products that have been chosen by the dietitians. So, no candy, soda, chips, or magazines that don’t promote healthy lifestyles.

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I love that I’m not tempted to buy a buy a bag of chips right before I check out, and our customers with children are happy that they don’t have to battle with their kids over candy!

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Corporate Wellness

In addition to helping customers, we also spend time educating our employees on nutrition. We have monthly nutrition themes and activities in the break room, and also have monthly presentations on the most current nutrition trends and research.

Media/Marketing

Marketing is another part of our job, and we work a lot with both print and television media. (Since January, I have been on the local news close to 30 times!) Harmons also has a blog that we write for weekly, where we talk about different foods that can be found in our stores, as well as current trends and general nutrition information.

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As you can see, we get to dabble a bit in a lot of different areas of nutrition, which keeps things fun and interesting.

Top 5 Tips for Grocery Shopping the Healthy Way

A big part of my job as a dietitian in a grocery store is helping people find healthful foods that fit in with their lifestyle, budget, and taste preferences. I’m a firm believer that what you eat the majority of the time is far more important than occasional treats, and so it’s important that those “most of the time” foods are actually good for you.

It’s probably not going to come as a surprise to anyone reading Kath’s blog that soda isn’t exactly considered a health food, but there are some foods which may seem healthy but upon closer inspection really aren’t. I see people tricked by health halos and clever marketing ploys constantly. Often people think that anything saying “natural,” “organic,” or “gluten free” must make the product healthy. I also see this happen with foods of certain brands or all foods sold in specific “health food” stores. Here are the products I see people struggling with most often:

Yogurt

Probiotics! Protein! Calcium! This seems like the perfect food for breakfast (and it can be), but some varieties are packed with fat and sugar, making their nutrition facts panel look more similar to ice cream than what I would consider a nutritious breakfast food. (Personally, for the calories, I’d rather have ice cream!)

When you’re picking out a yogurt, be sure to look for a couple of things:

- Fat content. Some are very high, with almost 10 grams of fat in a 6oz container. The jury is still out regarding the health benefits of full fat versus low fat dairy but, especially if you are watching your weight, limiting the fat in your yogurt can be helpful. I recommend either a 0% or 2% milk fat yogurt.

- Added Sugar. Since yogurt is made from milk, it will have some naturally occurring sugar in the form of lactose. The best way to figure out how much sugar is added is to compare the sugar content of plain yogurt with a flavored yogurt of the same brand. Also, check to see whether fruit or sugar is listed first on the label. (This can be tricky as some yogurt companies cleverly disguise sugar on the label as “Evaporated cane juice”) The lower the better but ideally shoot for less than 20 grams of total sugar per 6oz serving of yogurt if fruit is listed before sugar on the ingredients list, or less than 15 grams if sugar is listed before fruit.

Top picks: Fage 2% Greek Yogurt, Chobani 0% Greek, Siggi’s Icelandic Yogurt

Salad Dressings

While salads can be an excellent way to get more vegetables in your diet, not all salads are necessarily healthy. One of the greatest factors that determine whether your salad is healthy or not is the type and amount of dressing you choose. When picking out a salad dressing, make sure it:

- Has some (healthy) fat in it. I see a lot of people who assume that the fat free dressings are the healthiest. The problem with this is that your body needs fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in your salad. Fat free dressings can also be packed full of sodium, sugar and fillers to account for the loss of taste from the fat. If you have a fat free dressing that you really love, make sure you are adding some nuts, a few slices of avocado, or a bit of cheese to your salad for a dose of fat to help absorb those vitamins. And if you are using an oil based dressing, be sure to keep your portion to around two tablespoons.

- Is lower in sodium and sugar. Many people are shocked when I tell them that there are some “natural” salad dressings that have almost as much sugar as two Krispy Kreme donuts in a two tablespoon serving! I’ve also seen some “natural” salad dressings with close to 400 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Top Picks: Dressings vary widely even within brands, so check the nutrition facts label for ones with less than 150 milligrams of sodium and less than 4 grams of sugar per 2 tablespoons. Or better yet, make your own if you have the time!

Protein or Nutrition bars

Another product with a health halo, some of these are really just candy bars with different packaging and some added soy protein isolate. Many nutrition bars list sugar as the first ingredient (typically as brown rice syrup – which is sugar!), and have some kind of protein isolate rather than protein from a more natural source. While I’m not necessarily against protein isolates, they do signal that the product is likely pretty highly processed. Nutrition bars can be helpful snacks or meal replacements when you are on the go, but I prefer ones that are more “real food” based – for one they tend to taste better, and they usually use nuts and fruits for both their sweetness and protein sources.

Top picks: KIND Fruit and Nut Bars, Lara UBER bars, Clif Mojo Bars. Most of these are fruit and nut based, but a few flavors contain protein isolates – be sure to check the label if that’s something you’re concerned about.

Nut Butter and Flavored Spreads

Just because it’s sold next to the nut butters doesn’t mean that it’s healthy. (I’m looking at you, Cookie Butter!) While they are admittedly delicious, many of these spreads really don’t offer any nutritional benefits like actual nut or seed butters do. For instance, in Nutella, Hazelnuts are listed third on the ingredient list, after sugar and palm oil, and for every 2 tablespoons of Nutella, 1.75 tablespoons are sugar! Some nut butters are also sneaky sources of trans fats, so be sure to check for hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list of your jars. There are some great tasting (and healthy!) flavored nut butters on the market, so don’t feel like you are stuck with just plain nut butter for the sake of health. Per 2 tablespoons, try to limit sugar to 3 grams, saturated fat to 3 grams (to avoid excess saturated fat coming from added oils, like palm oil), and 140 milligrams of sodium. Oh, and save the Cookie Butter and Nutella for dessert : )

Top picks: Justin’s Flavored Nut Butters (Honey Almond is my favorite!), Jif Natural Peanut Butter, MaraNatha Nut Butters.

Sugar

I often see people tricked by health halos around different sugars like maple syrup, honey, and agave. I have had people tell me that they don’t add any sugar to their food, except for some honey. Unfortunately, there really isn’t any “free” caloric sweetener that can be used without moderation. Agave was once thought to be a great choice for diabetics because it has a minimal effect on blood sugar levels. However, now we know that the high levels of fructose in agave (some varieties are 90% fructose!) can contribute to higher levels of triglycerides in the blood. While honey and maple syrup do contain some trace minerals, I would not recommend any of my clients consume more of these products just so they can get some more minerals in their diet, as they are still essentially empty calories. (You can get far more minerals from fruits, vegetables and whole grains!)

The bottom line: Pick a sweetener based on the taste you prefer, not the supposed health benefits, and use it in moderation. No matter what you call it – coconut sugar, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, agave, honey, maple syrup, or corn syrup – it’s all sugar, and it all contributes essentially empty calories to your diet.

Kayla

Kayla is a registered dietitian living in Salt Lake City, Utah. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Food and Nutrition from the University of Idaho, where she completed the Coordinated Program in Dietetics. In addition to her degree in Food and Nutrition, Kayla also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology. Kayla is a firm believer that healthy and delicious are not mutually exclusive, and she loves getting to teach people how to incorporate foods they love into a healthful, nourishing diet.

When she’s not working at Harmons, Kayla can be found running, cooking, or shopping, and drinking far too much coffee with her medical student husband, Matt.

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shana September 2, 2014 at 6:08 am

Great post! I really, really wish all grocery stores modeled themselves after Harmon’s. Can you imagine how different things would be if fresh fruit and healthy foods were mass marketed instead of chips and soda?

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2 Liz @ I Heart Vegetables September 2, 2014 at 6:39 am

There is a local grocery store here in Richmond (Ellwood Thompson) that has a dietician on staff and I got to meet with her for a wellness challenge they did in the store. It was really cool and pretty awesome that a grocery store would offer that. I hope that becomes more common!

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3 Hannah @ sprints & scones September 2, 2014 at 6:42 am

This was so awesome! I love the tips on sugar- I’d given up on understanding whatbwas “best” :)

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4 holly waterfall September 2, 2014 at 7:16 am

I live in Salt Lake and just LOVE Harmon’s! It was great to read some of the new information about what they’re doing to be health-forward though! lots of great info I didn’t know.

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5 Kayla Womeldorff September 2, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Yay for a fellow Salt Lake resident! So glad you love Harmons. Please pop by my office if you’re at the Station Park store! :)

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6 Anele @ Success Along the Weigh September 2, 2014 at 7:32 am

I am in LOVE with the idea of a checkout aisle that doesn’t have oh say, Butterfinger peanut butter cups to do the running man in front of me while we check out. I don’t buy them but who needs to temptation when you’re just trying to check out!?

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7 Patty September 2, 2014 at 7:50 am

So cool! Wish my store had one. Curious Kath,
why didn’t you go into either one of the fields you were interested in? Private of store dietician? I’m sure you would have been so amazing and inspiring!

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8 KathEats September 2, 2014 at 8:06 am

My intention was to open a private practice, but between KERF and deciding to open a bakery, I was spread too thin to make it happen. It’s still in the cards though, perhaps when my kids are older, if/when KERF is over or another point in life.

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9 Anna September 2, 2014 at 8:23 pm

soo so sad to even think of KERF ever being ever over!! Kath, its so much fun to learn food facts, lifestyle tips, home decor ideas, workout/motivation inspiration, and just living life to the fullest with your beautiful posts. please never go away! :-)

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10 KathEats September 2, 2014 at 8:24 pm

Thanks : )

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11 Ella September 2, 2014 at 9:08 am

What an awesome idea! This is what EVERY grocery store needs. I have to say, I don’t necessarily agree with the all or nothing view on added sweeteners. There is a ridiculous amount of research suggesting that low GI sweeteners like agave and coconut sugar are ultimately better for you than white/brown granulated sugar. To each their own :)
http://www.youtube.com/sparklesandsuch26

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12 Kayla Womeldorff September 2, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Hi Ella,

I try to make sure I stay informed of the most current nutrition research. Do you have any studies you could share re: agave or coconut sugar? The most recent research I have seen suggests that agave can increase blood triglycerides, as well as insulin resistance and other signs of metabolic syndrome. The only research I have found on coconut sugar is from the Phillipine Department of Agriculture, and since the Phillipines is the world’s largest producer of coconuts, I take the research with a (large) grain of salt :)

Thanks for your comment!

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13 Alex @ True Femme September 2, 2014 at 10:07 am

What a cool job! I honestly had no idea that one could be a grocery store dietitian, but it makes perfect sense! This was a fun post to read!

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14 Kim September 2, 2014 at 10:26 am

Go Vandals!

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15 Kayla Womeldorff September 2, 2014 at 1:35 pm

:)

Thanks, Kim!

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16 Dana P. September 2, 2014 at 10:49 am

I loved reading this – thanks for sharing! I wish more grocery stores had dietitians on hand as a resource for people. I think teaching people about food at the source of purchase has the potential to be really powerful and impactful.

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17 Lauren September 2, 2014 at 11:59 am

Great post! What a great idea to have the end caps at the check out aisle be all healthy foods – super smart!

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18 jessica September 2, 2014 at 12:10 pm

What are your thoughts on Stevia? She didn’t mention this in the sugar category and it seems a lot of health food products are gravitating towards this option.

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19 Kayla Womeldorff September 2, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Hi Jessica,

Great question, and one that we get asked a lot! My thoughts on stevia are pretty much the same as my thoughts on all non-caloric sweeteners (Splenda, Stevia, Sweet n’ Low, etc.): in moderation, they can be part of a healthy diet, and can be an appropriate alternative to sugar (which most of us get too much of!), especially for people with diabetes. However, they don’t contribute any energy or nutrients, and they can keep us dependent on the taste of sweetness.

Stevia is one of the newest non-caloric sweeteners on the market, and was just granted GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status by the FDA in 2011. While the leaves of the Stevia plant have been used for centuries as a sweetener, the concentrated, processed Stevia products you can find on grocery store shelves are different, and there haven’t been any long term safety studies on the concentrated forms. Also, many Stevia products, like TruVia, are packaged with the sugar alcohol erythritol, or small amounts of sugar. So you aren’t just getting a ground up, powdered Stevia leaf like marketers would like us to think :)

Thank you again for your question!

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20 Katie September 2, 2014 at 1:31 pm

This post was especially interesting — my favorite of your guest posts.

Kath, I’m curious if you saw this new study just released?
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/02/health/low-carb-vs-low-fat-diet.html

“People who avoid carbohydrates and eat more fat, even saturated fat, lose more body fat and have fewer cardiovascular risks than people who follow the low-fat diet that health authorities have favored for decades, a major new study shows.”

I’d love to have your thoughts on it!

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21 KathEats September 2, 2014 at 2:46 pm

That was a good read – thanks for sharing. I think that for every article that comes out like this there is one to “prove” the opposite, which is why it would take the entire medical community taking a stance on a large range of research before I’d be convinced that any diet other than eating real food, not more than you need, focusing on plants and pastured meats, getting good exercise and rest is best.

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22 Kim September 2, 2014 at 1:52 pm

Hi kath! I am a long time reader of your blog and considerate it to be one of my favorites :) I hope this comes across as constructive as you know you appreciate reader feedback. I have been disappointed as of late on the amount of sponsored posts/guests posts. I know the sponsored happens more than the guest posting but I miss the blog posts authentically from you! Being that you you post 5 times a week, I feel the sponsored/guests posts get excessive. Again, this is my opinion as a long time reader. I am definitely missing the day in the life of, lifestyle posts! Thanks as always for listening! Hope you have a great day :)

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23 Sam September 2, 2014 at 11:11 pm

I too am a long time reader, but I enjoy the sponsored/guest posts. I enjoy the variety of information Kath posts. Frankly, what I don’t enjoy are the whining comments from some of the readers disguised as being “helpful” about the posts Kath chooses to make. People change, they grow and that is what is reflected in her choices. If the post for that day doesn’t appeal to you, then move on. You aren’t required to read every post. People, please stop the whining! Again, this is MY opinion as a long time reader. Keep up the good work Kath! A lot of us enjoy what you do.

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24 Susan September 5, 2014 at 7:25 am

Exactly! Kath has great posts and info! She also made a decision to not post as often as she did before her son was born, but she still posts often. Give her some slack – skip the posts you don’t want to read! Personally, I am grateful to read her blog and it’s one of the best out there!

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25 Emily @ Tips on Healthy Living September 2, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Wonderful post–I had no idea that this was an actual job. Fascinating stuff–thanks!

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26 Rebecca @ it's a nourishing thing September 2, 2014 at 3:31 pm

I love this post! I had no idea most grocery stores had dieticians. Such a cool job!!

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27 Jemima September 2, 2014 at 5:21 pm

What a great post! It’s great to see what a real registered dietitian has to say about food!!1 I thought about taking the RD test after completing my undergraduate degree, but it was too time consuming to complete the actual career – especially with a little one on the way. Anyhoo, I had no idea that grocery stores had dietitians! You’ve single-handedly inspired me to renew my interest in becoming a real RD and go back to school!

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28 Kayla Womeldorff September 2, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Wow – thanks, Jemima! I’m sure that Kath would agree that being an RD is such a rewarding career, and I would recommend it to anyone with a passion for food, science, and helping others. Good luck finishing school, and congratulations on your little one!

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29 Sam September 2, 2014 at 5:25 pm

This sounds like such a neat job! I’m glad you mentioned Nutella in this post. It’s surprising how many people consider it to be nutritionally equivalent to other nut butters.

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30 emily September 2, 2014 at 6:10 pm

Does Kayla have a blog?

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31 Kayla Womeldorff September 2, 2014 at 8:56 pm

I don’t have a personal blog, but I contribute posts to the Harmon’s Blog! Here’s the link, if you’d like to check it out: http://www.harmonsgrocery.com/blog/category/dietitian/

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32 Camille September 2, 2014 at 8:46 pm

I can’t even tell you how much I love that you featured Harmons on the blog. I live in the SLC area and down the street from Harmons. We try to always buy the dieticians choice items when we can. Such a great program! So happy you featured this!

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33 Ella September 2, 2014 at 11:28 pm

Great piece! This RD approves of all these tips – such important ones. :-) Also, this job sounds AMAZING. Why doesn’t this exist in Los Angeles?!?!

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34 Grace September 2, 2014 at 11:57 pm

I live in Western Washington and consider it to be a region that values healthful living, but I’ve never heard of a grocery store dietician. What a great idea and I’m surprised more stores here don’t have one (or at least a more visible one). And I LOVE the idea of a candyless check out aisle!! One of the grocery stores here has a “family friendly” checkstand but it seems to style itself that way because it doesn’t stock tabloids in that checkstand. . .I’d way rather have to explain some sordid item my kids happened to notice on a tabloid cover than spend the wait time fighting about why they can’t have a snickers bar :)

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35 Laura September 3, 2014 at 6:02 am

This was really informative–thank you!
I do have a question though regarding KIND bars. I absolutely LOVE these bars however they contain inulin which I suspect may be contributing to my stomach woes, although I can’t be certain. Do you have an opinion or any information regarding inulin/chicory root fiber and digestion?

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36 Kayla Womeldorff September 3, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Great question, Laura! Because of its natural sweetness and fat mimicking texture, chicory root extract is in a LOT of products. Inulin/chicory root are generally well tolerated in doses of up to 10 grams per day in healthy adults. (You can check out one of the articles here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20497775) Most KIND bars have between 3-7 grams of fiber, with probably about 2-3 grams coming from nuts, since it’s generally the first ingredient. So in each bar you’re probably getting somehwere around 1-5 grams of chicory root fiber. But, if you’re having more than 1 bar per day, or also eating other sources of chicory root fiber, you might be over your threshold, which could lead to gas, bloating, and other GI symptoms, especially if you’re particularly sensitive. Chicory root fiber has been shown to be a pre-biotic fiber, and can be good for digestion, so when used in appropriate amounts, it’s not something that I feel needs to be avoided. Please feel free to send me an email if you’d like more information! Maybe try choosing the KIND bars with less fiber (the Apple Cinnamon and Pecan and Cranberry Almond flavors have 3g or less and are fabulous!), or switching to bars without chicory root fiber, like LARA Uber bars, and see how you feel.

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37 Laura September 3, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Thank you for the detailed response! I have yet to pinpoint exactly what is troubling my stomach (I’m lactose intolerant and noticing I’m very sensitive to fiber) so I can’t be certain if it’s the fiber specifically from the chicory root or just too much fiber in general. Trying the lower fiber bars is actually a fantastic suggestion and I never even thought of that. LARA Uber bars are my favorite! Thank you so so much.

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38 Lee September 3, 2014 at 6:42 am

That sounds like such a fun job!

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39 Julie @ RDelicious Kitchen September 5, 2014 at 10:45 pm

Yay a fellow Grocery Store dietitian! Seriously the best job ever!

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40 joelle (on a pink typewriter) September 9, 2014 at 2:57 pm

I found this post to be SO interesting! Love your guest RD series!

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