Variety in your grocery list is key.

By Cynthia Sass, RD, MPH
June 29, 2021
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Healthful, sustainable weight loss isn't about tedious calorie counting or diet food; it's about nourishment. Research shows that nutrition knowledge and diet quality are linked to a lower body mass index (BMI). Studies also show that nutritious eating patterns are tied to long-term weight loss maintenance, which is the ultimate goal.

If you're on a weight loss journey, prioritize the quality of the foods you stock up on each week at the grocery store. Here's my list of the items to keep on hand, as well as suggestions for how to use these foods to build balanced meals, snacks, and treats.

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Credit: Getty Images / Design by Jo Imperio

Aisle-by-aisle grocery list

Food quality, variety, and balance are the keys to exposing your body to a broad spectrum of nutrients and health-protective compounds. A few food groups stand out for weight loss, and at the top of the list is produce. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that an increased intake of fruits and vegetables can counteract a higher BMI and body weight associated with genetics. Produce should compose the majority of what's in your cart, with a goal of building about seven cups of produce into each day's meals and snacks. Load up on the following:

For some smart produce shortcuts (no peeling or chopping required), check out the frozen aisle. You can find:

The refrigerated section houses a few key food groups that can help support long-term weight loss maintenance, including:

  • Eggs or plant-based egg substitute
  • Greek yogurt (plant-based or dairy)
  • Hummus
  • Plant milk
  • Vegan pesto

Shelf-stable foods can also be beneficial for your health. For example, one food group you can find in these aisles are whole grains, which can up your intake of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants and support weight loss. One study found that whole grain intake was inversely associated with belly fat. Another study showed that substituting refined grains with whole grains increased resting metabolic rate, a measure of calorie burning. Some of the shelf stable items that you should consider adding to your grocery list include:

  • Almond butter
  • Bagged lentils
  • Brown rice
  • Canned black beans
  • Canned chickpeas
  • Canned tuna
  • Canned wild salmon
  • Dark chocolate
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Herbs and spices
  • Maple syrup
  • Nuts
  • Old-fashioned rolled oats
  • Olive tapenade
  • Plant protein powder
  • Quinoa
  • Tahini

Meal ideas

Mix and match these foods from your grocery list to create a variety of nutrient-rich meals and snacks that promote weight loss and healthy weight maintenance. Here are some ideas that use the complete shopping list above:

Breakfast

  • Smoothie made with leafy greens, banana, frozen berries, plant protein powder, almond butter, and plant milk
  • Zoats made with zucchini, old-fashioned rolled oats, maple syrup, cinnamon, chopped apple, and nuts
  • Scramble made with egg, plant-based egg substitute, or chickpeas with veggies, herbs, avocado, and a side of citrus fruit

Lunch

  • Bowl made with greens, cucumber, tomato onion, lentils, quinoa, and seasoned tahini
  • Salad made with leafy greens, chickpeas, canned salmon, and vegan pesto
  • Salad made with leafy greens tossed with olive tapenade and topped with canned tuna, green beans, and cubed potatoes

Snacks

  • Sliced bell pepper and cucumber with hummus
  • Sliced apple with almond butter
  • Yogurt with grapes and nuts

Dinner

  • Southwest platter made with sautéed bell pepper, onion, mushrooms, black beans, brown rice, and avocado
  • Extra virgin olive oil sautéed broccoli and cauliflower, lentils, and oven-roasted sweet potato
  • Extra virgin olive oil-sautéed green beans with oven-roasted herbed chickpeas and potatoes.

Treats

  • Dark chocolate squares with fresh fruit
  • Sautéed frozen berries topped with crumble made from almond butter, maple syrup, cinnamon, and rolled oats
  • Frozen banana dipped in melted dark chocolate and chopped nuts

As you select the ingredients for these meals, snacks, and treats, keep in mind that when it comes to fat, type matters. Research shows that monounsaturated- and polyunsaturated-fatty acids consumption have desirable effects on body weight and fat mass. To optimize your fat intake, consider cooking with extra virgin olive oil instead of butter, nibbling on nuts or seeds in place of cheese, and opting for plant-based dips like guacamole and tahini over ranch.

Pre-shopping tips

There are some things to think about before you get to the store or log on to do your online food shopping. First up, decide how to make your grocery list. When putting future grocery lists together, think through items you'll need to make complete meals and healthy snacks. A balanced meal should contain five components:

  1. Veggies: including fresh or frozen options.
  2. Lean protein: Don't forget about plant-based options, from lentils to frozen veggie burgers. Eggs and canned salmon and tuna are quick and easy animal-based proteins.
  3. "Good-for-you" fat: Fats that can be beneficial include extra virgin olive oil, olive tapenade, olive oil-based pesto, avocado, nuts and nut butter, and tahini.
  4. Whole food carbs: Whole food carbs include fresh or frozen fruit; starchy veggies like potatoes; and whole grains, including oats, brown rice, and quinoa. Pulses, the umbrella term for beans, lentils, and chickpeas, provide both protein and fiber-rich carbs.
  5. Natural seasonings: Seasonings can include fresh or dried herbs and spices, as well as nutritious condiments, such as balsamic vinegar and stone-ground mustard.

Build your grocery list around the items you need for each meal, based on sections within the store (like I did with the aisle-by-aisle list above). This method means you'll return from your trip with everything you need to prepare meals you've already thought through. Then it's just a matter of making the time to cook. Pre-prepping can also help, so all you'll need to do is plate and re-heat your meal components. A 2021 study in a worksite weight management program found that higher average meal planning frequency was associated with greater weight loss.

Also, when you shop matters. You've probably heard that you shouldn't grocery shop on an empty stomach. I agree, based on my own personal experience and stories from my clients. Being hungry makes you more vulnerable to impulse purchases you may bypass when full. A growling tummy can also cause you to feel unfocused and less able to think strategically about what you need. Plan a trip shortly after a meal, when you won't feel rushed, and bring your list.

Keep this in mind

Successful long-term weight loss involves developing healthy habits you can stick with. Meal planning and shopping are lifestyle changes that require a commitment, but the rewards are well worth the time and energy. Use the lists and meal ideas in this article to get started, then branch out based on your personal preferences and creativity. Apart from weight loss, you'll likely experience bonus benefits, including more energy, improved digestive health, and even better sleep. Nutrition (not dieting) for the win!

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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