Get Smart About Grocery Shopping: Use Your BMS (Best Market Skills) to Help Your BMI (Body Mass Index)

Childhood obesity is one of the current leading health concerns, with everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama to celebrity chefs and Ryan Seacrest weighing in on the issue.

Frequently, there are discussions in the media about the nutritional value school lunches, as well as whether sodas should be sold on campus or not. However, equal time should be given to whether those fatty foods and sugary drinks under scrutiny on school lunch trays are showing up in our own grocery carts -- or whether dinner is more likely to come from a fast-food window than from a well-stocked pantry.

Many parts of sunny, sandy Los Angeles are considered food deserts -- that is, areas where residents have to travel twice as far to get to the nearest grocery store as their peers in other parts of town.

More often than not, according to a USDA study, these food deserts are found in lower-income areas, and tend to be crowded with convenience stores and fast food outlets. Both of these options provide plenty of ease and convenience, but limited few nutritious food choices. While access to healthy food is only a piece of the obesity puzzle, certainly the proliferation of stores serving up fast, palette-pleasing but nutritionally bankrupt options is a factor in the expansion of adult and child waistlines alike.

Once you wade out of the food desert and into the grocery store, that's only half the battle. Shelves are lined with sugary cereals at the eye-level of children who have seen the ads for them on television. A gauntlet of salty potato chips, creamy dips, boxes of cookies and other tempting treats stand between you and the basic staples of bread and milk.

With a little care and planning, however, anyone can navigate those aisles and leave with all the necessities of a week's worth of healthy meals. To make this process even easier, some of my colleagues in Cedars-Sinai's Community Health Initiatives department have developed a grocery store tour program. The program includes two weeks of classroom instruction on the basics of prioritizing food shopping, how to use label reading skills and choosing healthy foods on a budget. These lessons are followed by two more workshops that take place at participants' local grocery store to put the concepts into action. The program is conducted in English and Spanish and is chock-full of common sense advice for shopping.

The pilot grocery store tour program is currently offered only in a few specific neighborhoods, as part of the Healthy Habits for Families program. But the program's lessons can be applied anywhere.

Here are a few of the key tips:

Healthy grocery shopping starts at home. Before heading to those busy, crowded aisles filled with tempting sale items, have a plan. Beyond a list, think critically. Pick out some healthy recipes, and decide what you want to serve this week. Also consider whether you want to stretch out some of those meals -- do you want to make enough for more than one meal? Maybe even freeze some of the leftovers. Don't forget breakfast and healthy snacks as part of your plan.

Then make your list, and stick to it. We've all fallen into the trap of going to the grocery store hungry. Not only might you spend more money, but your food choices may also be compromised. Have a snack while double-checking that list.

Shop the perimeter. Most of the fresh foods are kept around the perimeter of a supermarket - meat, fish, dairy products and produce. Generally, the key ingredients to eating according to the Food Pyramid Guide are along this area. Choose lean cuts of meat, raw nuts, low-fat yogurts and fresh fruits and vegetables as centerpieces of your meals.

When browsing the produce department, it's best to eat the fruits and vegetables that are in season. For example, in July, plums, raspberries, asparagus and avocados should be at their peak. The Southland Farmer's Market keeps an online calendar of what produce is in season here.

Be choosy when cruising center aisles. The center aisles of the market are often where chips, cookies and sugary drinks reside. But, they're also where you will find whole grains and healthy cooking oils. The best choices for breads and cereals are whole grain -- and to determine if a product is a good source of whole grains, check the label. The first ingredient should include the words "whole grain." The words "enriched flour" are a clue that the product is not whole grain.

Also, skip the lard, butter, palm and coconut oils, opting instead for corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed, olive, canola, peanut or sesame oils instead.

Shop the juices carefully, and sparingly, too. When picking a juice box for a brown-bag lunch, don't confuse "juice drink" with juice. Choose products that are 100 percent juice rather than those that are only five percent juice. An even better choice is to replace juice with water and whole fruit.

As several readers suggested in last week's blog, it's best to avoid processed foods, as they are often high in fat, sodium and sugar and low on nutrients.

Read and compare labels before buying. Though we've covered this issue before, it bears repeating. Look for low fat, low sugar, low cholesterol and low sodium foods. Scour labels for high fiber, protein, vitamin and mineral content as well as checking the serving size and caloric content. When looking over the nutrients on the label, keep in mind that a product with five percent or less is low, and 20 percent or more is high.

Make healthy changes gradually. Setting a steaming plate of brown rice in front of a family accustomed to white rice or suddenly swapping a sugary breakfast favorite with fiber-packed cereal may be too much at once. Take small steps toward increasing the nutritional value of meals. Try mixing white rice with brown rice, and gradually increasing the amount of brown rice until you're used to it. Do the same with sugary, low-fiber cereal and whole grain, high-fiber cereal. Rather than immediately banning cookies and chips as snacks everyday, start substituting fruit a few times a week. Changes that are made slowly may stick longer.