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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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 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.