How to put together a healthy shopping basket?

María Puy Portillo, Helen Carr-Ugarte, Iker Gómez García, Iñaki Milton Laskibar, Irene Besné Eseverri, Iván Gómez López, Jenifer Trepiana Arin, Laura Isabel Arellano García, Maitane González Arceo, Saioa Gómez Sorita, The Conversation

By now, we all know that there are certain foods that are healthier than others. However, when we get down to business and try to follow a varied and balanced diet, it is not easy to know which foods to choose or how to combine them to achieve the greatest nutritional benefit.

In the following lines we will try to detail in a practical way which are the foods with a more beneficial nutritional profile within the different food groups and, as far as possible, how to replace the less healthy ones with healthier ones.

Fats are necessary and even healthy

Despite their bad reputation, fats are an essential food group to have a correct eating pattern.

The best oil par excellence is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), since it is attributed healthy properties due to its high content of monounsaturated fat and other beneficial compounds for health such as carotenoids and polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties. The consumption of this fat has been related to a lower risk of suffering from some pathologies such as cardiovascular diseases.

On the other hand, other common options such as sunflower oil, butter or margarine have fewer monounsaturated fatty acids and more polyunsaturated or saturated fatty acids, thus worsening the quality of the fat. Therefore, if you do not buy EVOO, the best options to resort to would be virgin olive oil or high oleic sunflower oil (monounsaturated).

Another group with an interesting lipid profile is that of dried fruits. Despite the fact that they are also highly caloric foods, and, therefore, we must adjust to the recommended intake (between 3 and 7 servings of 20-30 grams a week), the type of fats they provide are of good quality. They are also rich in fiber and minerals, which is why they are associated with positive effects on health.

Among the available options, raw or roasted nuts should be prioritized, not fried, and without any other ingredient (sugar or salt). In the case of consuming them in the form of cream, we must make sure that they do not contain refined oils and added sugars by looking at the label.

Not all cereals are the same

On the other hand, cereals constitute one of the most frequent food groups in dishes. However, not all cereals are created equal.

There are two main types: integral, or whole grain, and refined, which have the bran and germ removed. While the consumption of the former has been linked to a reduced risk of suffering from diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and cancer, among others, the prolonged consumption of the latter is linked to a decrease in sensitivity to insulin.

The beneficial effect of whole grains lies mainly in their high content of different types of fiber, resistant starch (which acts like fiber), vitamins and minerals, the latter two present mainly in the germ. Some of these beneficial nutrients are partially or completely lost during refining, making refined grains a less nutritionally interesting food.

Since the consumption of fiber has been linked to health benefits such as those mentioned above, it is convenient to include other foods that also contain it in our recipes. Fruits and vegetables, the mainstay of the food pyramid, are a great source of fiber (apart from being high in vitamins and minerals). In addition, they are presented as versatile ingredients that can be used in both sweet and savory recipes.

Animal proteins and alternatives: legumes, seitan, tofu

As for meat, although it is true that it contains saturated fats and cholesterol, it provides us with proteins of high biological value and a high amount of vitamins and minerals. Above all, its contribution of iron is interesting.

However, whether for reasons of animal welfare, sustainability or health, it is possible to substitute these products of animal origin for others of vegetable origin that are a good source of protein and rich in fiber. These include tofu, prepared from soybeans, or seitan, made from gluten (a protein present in many cereals such as wheat).

Another option to take into account is to replace the minced meat that we can use to make hamburgers or other dishes with textured soy or based on other legumes. In fact, the latter, in addition to being an interesting source of vegetable protein, provide fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Five final tips for shopping

  1. We should not demonize any food group, and fats are no exception. Let’s prioritize healthy fats, consuming them moderately.

  2. Let’s consume cereals, prioritizing those of complete grain. For refined grains, try pairing them with vegetable-based side dishes.

  3. Let’s fill the plates with color including seasonal fruits and vegetables in all your meals.

  4. It is advisable to increase the consumption of legumes, trying to consume about 3-4 servings (70-90 grams dry) a week.

  5. When going to the supermarket, it is better to read the labeling well and not let ourselves be influenced by the packaging. Unhealthy fats, sugars, or salt are added to many apparently healthy processed products.