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The Supermarket: Your Food Ally In Growth
Many people make the assumption that it is just the work that one does in the gym that will matter when it comes to building muscle and losing body fat. Sure, people realize that if you eat less than what you need or burn more calories over a 24-hour period than what you eat, you will lose weight. The truth of it is that there are many myths when it comes to optimizing results from exercise and that we often forget the importance of just what to eat. When we were all children eating was easy. Sure, often mom or dad chose what we would be served or guided or food choices. From making breakfast to packing a lunch and if you were lucky a nice family dinner was prepared by 6pm. Now that you are an adult and responsible for making a living, paying rent or a mortgage, stocking the refrigerator and of course paying the credit card bills. As this is what again can be referred to as the new information age and in this age, information is key to your success with the efforts that you put forth in the gym. Knowing how to food shop in addition to how and when to eat can be your missing part of the equation when wanting to "dial in" the right look. Keep in mind, meal timing and nutrient timing is covered in other articles on the ProSource website. To remind you and to be succinct, some sports nutritionists and exercise physiologists consider the "meals" that you eat surrounding each workout to be the most important meals of the day. The research has indicated that if you consume anywhere from a 1.5 to 6 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein (using ProSource NytroWhey Extreme as the protein source or a even a glass of fat-free chocolate milk) within one hour prior to your exercise than again with one hour after exercise and believe it or not, your body will be primed for anabolism. Of course there is much more to the picture of optimizing muscle growth or tone, but this is the most simplistic plan that covers your needs. Do not forget to plan your meals ahead of time and use the right spacing between meals (about every four hours or so) and to include the healthy fats (eating fat will not get you fat) with each meal. Combining protein based foods with vegetables and healthy fats for each meal is an easy way to get lean. Adding basic carbohydrates like brown rice, a sweet potato or whole-wheat pasta to your first meal after you workout is also beneficial for encouraging the body to recover quicker, supports muscle growth and helps re-energize the body. It all starts with the food label:
The Food Label is an easy tool to use when food shopping for one simple reason, it is on just about every type of food that you can purchase (except fruits and fish, which the nutrient information is supposed to be posted by your supermarket). The food label lists the items that when one is in the pursuit of weight loss, weight gain, simple nutrition knowledge or even fun facts for playing Jeopardy! all are available at your fingertips. For example, it is mandated that each food manufacturer tell you, the consumer just how many calories you will ingest by having one serving of that food. The example down below is taken from a Macaroni and cheese item, it is apparent that this "mac-n-cheese" is 250 calories (less than the typical meal replacement shake, but also containing inferior nutrition). There are a few simple items that one should know from the food label and this knowledge should be used for the following purposes: food shopping, counting calories and monitoring macronutrients (fat, carbs and protein) and for getting an idea just what a serving size is supposed to be. One cannot really say just which piece of information supplied by the food label is the most important, but here are the ones to key in on when food shopping (being supermarket savvy) for body building and health promoting foods:

  • Calories -- this number is the calories per serving
  • Calories from Fat -- this is just how many fat calories you will eat per serving.
  • Percent fat -- this is on the label to make it easy to know if you are eating a low-fat food (one < 30% fat)
  • Saturated fat -- this is the type of fat that is solid at room temperature (e.g. butter) and it is linked to heart disease. Some is good more may not be better. Look for foods where the saturated fat content is no more than 1/3 of the total fat content.
  • Trans-fat -- this heart disease promoting type of fat is now listed on the food label (law as of 2005), the common goal is to eat none of it!
  • Carbohydrate -- this number is the total amount of carbs listed as grams per serving.
  • Sugars -- this diddy is how many sugar grams are in a serving. RULE OF THUMB, unless you are eating the food as a post-workout "replensher", aim for 7 grams or less of sugar per serving
  • Dietary Fiber -- fiber is healthy for both regularity and helping to keep cholesterol in check. Since we should be eating 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories ingested, choose foods that always have some fiber
  • Protein -- in Latin, we use the word "proteos or protios" (depending upon whose spelling you prefer) -- the word literally means "of first order or highest importance". Even in ancient Greco-Roman times the "paidotribes" and "healers" knew that we should be making protein a stable of every meal. Thus, when looking at a food label -- always aim to get some protein in each food.
The above is the simplest way to view and understand what information a food label provides to us. This information can make your food shopping and nutrition experience a whole heck of a lot easier. Make friends with the food label; embrace it as your partner in being supermarket savvy! Purchasing the food Does the supermarket intimidate you? Do you find yourself wondering in and just picking the foods that are familiar to you? Have you ever thought, "I should be food shopping for body building and health promoting foods?" For those who do not do their own food shopping, know that the market is divided in aisles of various foods, with the perimeter also filled with staples such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and juices and for some reason, flowers.
  • What are some breakfast items I should consider? Since breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I spent my evening examining the breakfast aisle with the hope that I could find the right foods for both optimal nutrition and budget. Breakfast items range from eggs, cold cereals, hot cereals, ready-to-eat bars, ready-to-drink shakes and so much more. Here are some name brand items to look for when breakfast shopping: Post Raisin Bran (high fiber, low sugar), Kashi Go-Lean cereal (high fiber and high protein), Quaker Instant Oatmeal (unflavored), Whole Foods Organic Low fat Granola, Van Gourmet Flax Waffles (frozen section), Eggland's Best Eggs (Omega-3 fatty acid fortified/enriched), Morningstar Farms "Sausages", turkey sausages, 7-Grain bread or Atkins bread. Keep in mind, for cereals, whole grain is the type to go after -- cereals with fiber and protein and little to no added sugar are good to have in your pantry. For those that like dairy with their breakfast, consider Hood's Carb Countdown Fat-Free dairy beverage (low-carb, high protein "milk"; also available in higher fat versions) as this provides extra protein and is low in the lactose department. Sargento also has reduced fat four-cheese Italian blend (for the eggs or a cheese toast), for the bacon lovers, Canadian bacon is the way to go (lower fat, higher protein). This is just a smidgeon of what to use in your breakfast items.
  • Can I eat any canned items with or for lunch or dinner? Sure, there are many canned foods that are downright tasty and healthy. For example, tuna (albacore, Starkist or Chicken of the Sea) packed in water (or dehydrated) or even canned chicken when combined with vegetables and brown rice is an old bodybuilding standard. Let's not forget that Healthy Choice chicken noodle soup, Progresso beef and barley, Health Valley 3-bean chili or even Eden's Organic refried kidney beans or Dinty canned turkey stew along with fruits packed in their own juice or water (instead of heavy syrup) make easy lunch mixable choices -- all healthy and "bodybuilder approved".
  • Are frozen items ok to consider? Only if you are in a pinch should you ever consider eating a "TV Frozen Dinner". These items are typically laden with fat, rich in sodium and devoid of nutritive value. That said there are three items readily available in any frozen foods section of a supermarket that are okay to keep in your freezer as "just in case" items. The just in case is for those occasions where you are too whipped to cook a real meal, don't feel like having one or two MRP's for a meal or you come home late and do not want to eat you usual calorie allotment for dinner. These frozen fantastical items all contain about a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein and are < 300 calories per serving. Considering stocking up on Lean Cuisine Chicken a l'Orange, Healthy Choice Grilled Turkey Breast and Lean Cuisine's Southern beef tips. In addition, frozen vegetables or vegetable blends are must haves for your pantry (freezer and stomach) as is Gorton's Grilled Fillets, Cajun Blackened (the only frozen fish that you will want). As far as frozen desserts, Carbwatchers "ice cream" is great as is Edy's Grand Light and Silhouette's "The Skinny Cow" Ice Cream Sandwich (it is low sugar and a 5:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio).
  • In this era of "carb-phobia" what grains can I keep? Carbohydrates are not the devil, some may be devil-like, but as a whole food group, we should not banish them. I like Arnold Carb Counting Whole Wheat bread (because it does away with extra sugar and the white flour), Atkins breads (same reason), Arnold Country Wheat Sandwich Roll (for a burger or 6 ounces of lean roast beef!), MexAmerica Whole Wheat tortilla, Sahara Whole Wheat Pita, DeCecco Whole Wheat Linguini or the DeBoles line of whole grain pastas and brown rice or real whole semolina grain couscous.
  • What kind of meats should I buy? Not to be a jokester, but types that you will like! Seriously, as long as you follow a few rules (avoid high saturated fat meats, do not eat cured meats, except on a rare occasion and processed meats should be out of your vocabulary) you should be okay. I like the following cuts and brands of meat. For cuts, flank, sirloin and tenderloin should be your preferred for leanness. Consider the following name brand items as also being "approved" Bell & Evans Chicken Sausage (Italian style), Butterball Over-Roasted Chicken Breast, Jennie-O "Only One" turkey, Healthy Choice Honey Roasted Turkey, Oscar Mayer Center Cut Bacon, Canadian bacon, Perdue Short Cuts Original Roasted, Empire Kosher Chicken Breast and others that meet that general guidelines put forth in the "food label" section of this article will "cut the nutritional mustard".
  • I like to drink, is there something I should know? Yes, many liquids contain empty calories. That is, these beverages add calories to your daily diet without also providing any vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients or even protein. Therefore, avoid for the most part any liquids that contain calories. Load up on water, sugar-free drinks (diet versions of lemonade, iced tea, soda for example) before you choose to have a full-fledged calorie laden fruit smoothie. After you are finished training, there is no doubt that you should drink a carbohydrate-protein drink to enhance recovery and promote muscle protein synthesis and accretion (growth). Of course, your nutrition shakes have calories, but these also contain many vitamins, minerals and protein -- thus these are encouraged for you to ingest before you workout and yet again within one hour of exercising. Having some carbohydrate in these is great idea too. There is no need "to be like Mike" and drink any of these 6% glucose solutions unless you are exercising for hours on end and dehydration or severe fatigue become an issue. In that this article is meant to help provide you with the basics for foods to shop for and to support your understanding of how to use a food label for your muscular benefit and for fat loss as well, this should only be considered an overview. Otherwise, a dissertation could be written on just what exact food items are "acceptable" in every item of your supermarket. As life is about balance, so should all ideas about food too. I encourage you to use this guide as just a guide on choosing healthier food items and use this article within the library of great articles available on this website in building a better you. Douglas S. Kalman MS, RD is a Director in the Nutrition and Endocrinology Department of Miami Research Associates ( and contributes to the ProSource Forum.