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Focus on the Fresh and Be Prudent with Packages

Focus on the Fresh and Be Prudent with Packages

Dietitian Dialogues

August 26, 2012

Rachel Begun, MS, RD

Simple nutrition messages can be effective – but sometimes they can be too simple. I believe this is the case for “shopping the perimeter,” a nutrition sound bite often used by both health professionals and consumers.   

This piece of advice originated with good intentions, and I applaud whoever coined the term. It is an easy-to-remember sound bite encouraging consumers to purchase from the fresh food departments of the grocery story, including produce, dairy, meat and seafood.

I, however, choose not to use this advice for two reasons. First, many consumers shop in stores with non-traditional layouts making the phrase irrelevant and confusing in these situations. Secondly, for stores with traditional layouts, many of the healthiest choices are found in the center aisles.  

Non-traditional Store Designs on the Rise
While the majority of supermarkets incorporate the traditional layout of fresh foods around the perimeter and packaged foods in the aisles, more and more are making changes to their floor plans or introducing entirely different designs. A popular design of late is an open floor plan with no aisles where fresh food counters and prepared foods are placed in the center of the store and shelves of packaged foods and freezers are along the perimeter. With this layout and other non-traditional designs, the advice to ‘shop the perimeter’ becomes confusing, and when shared without supporting context, can often send the exact opposite message the sound bite was originally meant to deliver.  

Healthy Foods Are Abundant in the Aisles
More importantly, though, many of the foods and dietary patterns we promote for good health are located in the center of the store which are traditionally the aisles. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (the federal government’s dietary and physical activity recommendations for promoting health and reducing risk for chronic disease and prevalence of obesity) make the following recommendations for ‘Foods and Nutrients to Increase’:

  • Increase fruit and vegetable intake. This includes FROZEN fruits and vegetables, which traditionally, are shelved in freezers in the center of the store. Frozen fruits and vegetables are fantastic options for many reasons. They are packed at their peak of taste and nutrition making them perhaps tastier and more nutritious options than their fresh counterparts that have been shipped from far away. They are often less expensive options, and because they don’t go bad are less likely to go to waste. In certain recipes they work even better than fresh, including smoothies and baked goods.
  • Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Increase whole grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains. I can’t deny that a majority of the highly processed and refined grain products are shelved in the center of the store, but here is where you’ll find most of your whole grain products as well. And, fortunately, we are seeing more and more varieties than ever before from polenta to brown and wild rices to ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and sorghum.
  • Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils; also, use oils to replace solid fats where possible. If there is one health message that continues to gain momentum, it is to eat a more plant-based diet. This includes plant-based proteins such as legumes, nuts and seeds, and plant-based fats, including vegetable, nut and seed oils. All of these health-supportive foods are found in the center of the store. 

So, perhaps it’s time to modify the ‘Shop the Perimeter’ message? Here’s my stab at it: Focus on the fresh and be prudent with packages. It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely, but I think it’s a good start. I welcome other suggestions!  

Rachel Begun, MS, RD is a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She provides food and nutrition education, consulting and communications services to health organizations and the food industry. She also educates the public through speaking and writing, including her own blog, The Gluten Free RD. You can connect with Rachel on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest at