Friday, March 14, 2014

Hunting and gathering at Walmart (or anywhere)

This article about how many foods sold at Walmart would be banned at Whole Foods popped up in my Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago, and because it's What I Do, I willfully missed the point and got my dander all up. There is a pervasive belief in this country that in order to eat healthy, healing foods you have to make six figures and shop at places like Whole Foods, and you guys, it's not true. That sort of elitist bullshit is not helping anyone. I mean, if you have access to Whole Foods and can afford to buy all your groceries there, go for it, man. I am not knocking Whole Foods -- they have good, healthy, clean food there and you would do well to eat (most of) it.

But what if you don't have a Whole Foods (or a farmer's market) within 100 miles of your house? Or what if your grocery budget doesn't make shopping there a realistic option? What if your ONLY choice for groceries is Walmart? Are you doomed to a diet filled with high fructose corn syrup and trans fats? NO YOU ARE NOT.

You guys? I shop at Walmart. I buy stuff that fits into my clean-eating, minimally processed, no-refined-sugars-or-grains diet at Walmart. If I do nothing else worthwhile in my life beyond helping people make healthy choices at Walmart, or at other stores on a Walmart grocery budget, then I can die happy. So that's what this post is about. It's not a definitive guide to healthy shopping and eating, it's not a defense of Walmart as a corporation, it's just a guide to doing the best you can with what you have access to and can afford, grocery-wise. That's it.

What it all boils down to is Acceptable, Good, Better and Best choices. Your goal is to buy the best food you can afford and to which you have access. You do have to be able to count to three and read labels, but you DO NOT have to memorize a bunch of ingredients and know what they mean. With those parameters in mind, it's not hard to find healthy food no matter what your geographical and financial shopping options happen to be.

Let's start with packaged foods. These are foods that come in a box, bag, bottle, can or carton, whether shelf-stable, refrigerated or frozen.

First of all, you can ignore the nutrition label. It's inaccurate and damn near worthless. What you want is the list of ingredients. So look at that, and if ALL of the ingredients in that list are things you recognize, things that you can buy at that same grocery store as WHOLE ingredients, then that is your Best choice. Bonus points if there are five ingredients or less (that is true for all packaged foods; you want the shortest ingredient list possible). If there are only one or two ingredients that sound like they were made in a chemistry lab, ingredients that you most definitely CANNOT buy separately in the grocery section of the store, but the vast majority are real ingredients, then that is your Better choice (assuming you can't find a Best choice). If less than half of the ingredients are chemistry lab ingredients and more than half are real, recognizable ingredients that you can actually buy individually, that's still a pretty Good choice. If it's a pretty even split between real ingredients and chemistry lab ingredients but at least the first three ingredients listed in order are real foods, that's an Acceptable choice. If more than half of the ingredients listed are things you could not buy individually at that store and/or if any of those chemistry lab ingredients appear in the first three ingredients listed on the label, then that's not food, and you shouldn't buy or eat it.

Once you get the hang of reading the ingredient labels and knowing what constitutes "real" food/ingredients -- stuff you could buy as whole, individual ingredients in any grocery store -- you are home free and on your way to eating minimally processed, REAL food. Which is what your body needs to function.

Okay, so what about non-packaged foods, like fresh meats, fruits and vegetables?

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, organics are your Best choice. If your store doesn't label its organics outright, look for a five-digit PLU number (usually on a sticker) beginning with 9. Organic vegetables generally contain fewer toxins to irritate your liver and gut mucosa, and they are never genetically modified. They are, however, more expensive, so your Better choice is to buy organic for all fruits and veggies EXCEPT those on the "clean fifteen"* list -- onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi fruit, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, sweet onions -- which are low in pesticide residue even when conventionally grown. Stepping down just a bit, a Good choice is to only buy organic for fruits and veggies listed on the "dirty dozen"* list, which are particularly high in pesticide residue when conventionally grown -- celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, domestic blueberries, nectarines, sweet bell peppers, spinach/kale/collards, cherries, potatoes, imported grapes, lettuce -- and buy conventionally grown versions of everything else. And I may get some heat from the organic purists on this one, but a perfectly Acceptable choice, if you have no access to organics or can't afford them, is just to buy conventionally raised fresh fruits and veggies. It's still real food, and even a conventionally grown fresh strawberry is better than a processed "fruit" snack where the first three ingredients are some form of sugar.

So now let's talk fresh meat. Your best bet in general is to buy meat from animals that were fed what they are biologically designed to eat and that were not given hormones and antibiotics. Grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken (including eggs), uncured and minimally processed, are your Best choice. My local Walmart has grass-fed beef; yours may not. Or, because it's a bit more expensive than conventionally raised meat, it might fall outside your budget. That's fine. Your Better choice is to buy meats from animals that are conventionally raised but not given antibiotics or hormones (you still want to get them uncured and minimally processed, though). A Good choice is to buy all conventionally raised meat, but to buy only the leanest cuts with a bare minimum of fat, because fat is where any toxins that result from factory farming methods are likely to be the most concentrated. And as with fresh fruits and veggies, a perfectly Acceptable choice is to just buy fresh meat, period. Feeding your family some roasted, conventionally raised chicken drumsticks is better than feeding them frozen processed breaded "chicken" nuggets any day of the week, and they don't take much longer to make.

Dairy is very similar to meat in terms of what constitutes Best, Better, Good and Acceptable choices. Raw, unpasteurized, full-fat dairy from grassfed cows is considered the ne plus ultra of dairy by many, but it's not for everyone (folks with compromised immune systems, for example) and not widely available. (If you see this at your local Walmart? Lemme know.) Dairy is kind of a controversial area, and I don't consume it myself, but for those of you who do and for whatever it's worth, these are my recommendations. Full-fat organic dairy is your Best choice. Full-fat conventional dairy is your Better choice. Conventional dairy labeled 2% is a Good choice if you can't get full-fat or don't believe me that dairy fat is good for you. I cannot in good conscience recommend lowfat dairy. I just can't. They fill it all full of sugary crap to make up for the lack of fat and you shouldn't be eating/drinking it. (Incidentally, yogurt and cheese count as packaged foods, so see above on those.)

I've oversimplified and glossed things over a bit here. We haven't talked about sugar in all its many forms and how most Americans are eating WAY more of it than our bodies are designed to handle. If one of the first three ingredients on your packaged food label is sugar/honey/agave, you definitely want to make that food an occasional treat and not something you eat at every meal. We haven't talked about seafood, which is a complicated issue. My thinking is that real, whole, unbreaded fish fillets, whether bought fresh or frozen, are better than processed breaded fish sticks and nuggets. Anything without breading or sauce is better than anything WITH breading or sauce. (Which is not to say you can't bread/sauce fish you cook yourself at home, just don't buy it covered in that stuff ALREADY.) I personally don't eat legumes or grains, so I can't really recommend those foods in good conscience, but again, buying bags of dried beans and rice, minimally processed plain pastas, etc. is better than buying those just-add-water mixes that are full of chemistry lab crap. The only ingredients in your peanut butter, if you choose to eat it, should be peanuts and salt.

It's really all about that ingredient listing on the label. Either buy whole ingredients, or buy foods made from whole ingredients, as much as you can based on what your local store has available and what you can afford. If you can do that, you'll be better off than the VAST majority of Americans, health-wise.

So what are some things I buy at Walmart, keeping in mind that I eat a modified paleo diet and that competition and demand in my area have encouraged my local Walmart to carry some higher-quality food items? Well, I'll tell you. This is an incomplete list, based on items I've picked up on recent shopping trips, but it gives you some idea.
  • Organic, cage-free eggs.
  • Grass-fed beef.
  • Frozen wild-caught Alaskan salmon and other frozen sustainable seafood.
  • Organic salad greens.
  • Organic bagged carrots.
  • Packaged dehydrated/freeze-dried fruits (NOT regular dried fruit, which usually has sugar and/or preservatives).
  • Pork rinds/chicharrones (Utz or Baken-Ets brands, non-flavored varieties, which contain pork and salt only).
  • Canned green beans.
  • Wholly Guacamole.
  • Frozen no-sugar-added fruits (Walmart's store brand).
  • Green and Black's dark chocolate.
Some of these are dietary staples (meat and veggies) and some are occasional treats/snacks. You'll notice that not 100% of the things on this list are Best choices. I'm okay with that, because just like the rest of you, I live in the real world and am doing the best I can with my finances and what I have access to, food-wise.

Do I have access to, and can I afford to shop at, Whole Foods? Yes. Can I afford to buy 100% of our groceries at Whole Foods while still saving for college x2, paying for our special-needs kid's therapeutic interventions that aren't covered by insurance, our daughter's theater trips/productions, our mortgage and utilities and copays and deductibles, and all of our other monthly household expenses? Yeah, not so much.

That's the reality that the vast majority of us are dealing with, and that is my purpose in writing this shopping guide. You CAN afford to eat healthy, or at the very least, you can afford to make better nutritional choices, which in the long run will save you money in the form of fewer copays and prescription drug charges. It's a win-win, you guys!

* Source: PBS. org


  1. I went into a rhapsodic trance at "chicharrones."

  2. Great article, Kathy, I really appreciate the work you put into it. I had no idea that fat free milk has sugary water in it! That's the ONLY milk I've ever had to drink since I was a kid. Good grief!

    1. It's not that they add sugar water to milk (although some brands DO add sugar to fat-free dairy products like sour cream and yogurt), it's that a cup of skim milk has more sugar than a cup of whole milk simply by virtue of having the fat removed. So it's a volume issue -- if you're drinking a pint of skim milk per day, you're getting more sugar than you would if you were drinking a pint of whole milk. It's not without controversy, but I believe the most recent, comprehensive studies show that sugar is more of a root cause of disease and metabolic disorder than natural, non-hydrogenated fats.

  3. Great post! I love the idea of simplifying the shopping process into acceptable, good, better and best. We can only do the best we can with the available resources, suppliers and funds.