How to grocery shop for healthy foods: The perimeter method

Grocery stores often lead consumers down aisles of processed or frozen foods, but health-conscious shoppers should shop the perimeter first.

Most grocery stores employ advanced psychology when designing their interiors. Pleasant music puts customers in a better state of mind, while fresh scents from the floral department and in-store bakery lead them to the right. Instead of placing staple items such as milk, bread and eggs in one central location, stores often spread these departments across the entire perimeter. This is intended to encourage ‘aisle grazing’ as customers work their way to each staple item. If stores placed almost every essential grocery item in one convenient location, many shoppers would never bother investigating new food items in the other aisles. Stores encourage sales of processed and frozen foods by forcing customers to negotiate aisles while searching for the mainstays located along the walls.

A new way to find healthier foods in grocery stores has sprung up from all this psychology. It’s called the ‘perimeter method’ of healthier shopping. Basically, a perimeter shopper takes advantage of the store’s design in order to find healthier foods and avoid the temptation of processed convenience items. There are some notable exceptions to the perimeter rule, but in general the idea is to restrict your shopping to departments located along the walls of any grocery store- the deli, meats, seafood, vegetables and fruits, dairy and eggs. For many dieters, the most dangerous items are located in the aisles- high carbohydrate cereals, processed lunch items, frozen foods with high sodium and empty calorie snack items.

How to grocery shop for healthy foods: The perimeter method

For the most part, foods in the perimeter of a store are natural and unprocessed. Deli meats may contain sodium or other preservatives, but they are still leaner and healthier than their processed and canned equivalents on the shelves. Fresh seafood is considered to be much healthier than canned or processed varieties. Fruits and vegetables found in the perimeter are preferable to canned versions, which often contain high levels of sodium or are packed in syrups. Juices made directly from fruits or vegetables are often kept in refrigerated sections of the perimeter, instead of sitting unrefrigerated on the shelves. Many of the unrefrigerated juices contain artificial additives for extended shelf life or improved flavor.
This is not to say that every food item found in the perimeter should be considered healthy, but consumers should already have an idea of what foods suit their diets. The dairy section may contain margarines or other spreads high in trans-fatty acids, but there should also be healthier alternatives in the same section. Perimeter shopping’s primary appeal is the reduction of temptation.

Obviously, most customers are not going to find every single grocery item they need while perimeter shopping. The idea is to shop the perimeter primarily, then carefully select the aisles which contain only the additional foods you need. Organic and natural foods are often found in one or two specially marked aisles. Baking needs can be found in another aisle, and non-grocery needs such as the pharmacy are also located in specific sections of the store. The point of perimeter shopping is to avoid casually scanning the aisles for new snack items or sugary drinks. Some stores now display organic or healthier versions right next to the original product lines.

The perimeter shopping method works best for consumers who are very motivated and disciplined. Shoppers who tend to graze the aisles for new snack items or are prone to shop on impulse may find the perimeter method to be a little limiting at first. Stores make most of their money on low-cost, high-retail items offered in the aisles. The staple items located on the perimeter are meant to keep customers moving through every aisle in the store. Serious perimeter shoppers eventually learn to avoid being manipulated into grazing and approach every grocery store with the same healthier shopping plan.

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