The Healthy Grocery Shopping Game | STACK

Become a Better Athlete. Sign Up for our FREE Newsletter.

The Healthy Grocery Shopping Game

November 1, 2012 | Jim Carpentier

Must See Nutrition Videos

Build muscle for your sport with a simple formula: strength training + sleep + proper nutrition = success.  

If you’re like most athletes, you probably have the first two elements of that equation down cold. Hit the weight room? Heck, you practically live there. Sleep? Eight hours every night. (See Build Muscle: Get a Good Night's Sleep.)

But nutrition? That’s the tricky part.

See, choosing the right foods—and eating them consistently—can be tough, because although coaches can tell you what to do on the field, or teach you how to get stronger in the gym, only you can control what foods go into your body. You are the head coach of your diet. Call the right plays and you’ll fuel your cells with disease-fighting, energy-boosting nutrients that support muscle growth. Botch the call and you’ll hinder muscle recovery; and when your muscles can’t recover, they can’t grow bigger and stronger.

Making matters worse, your grocery store is a minefield of misinformation. Plenty of foods labeled “healthy” are anything but. So when you go shopping, how can you tell which foods are "in-bounds" (good) and which one are "out-of-bounds" (bad)?

Thankfully, there’s an answer—and it’s simpler than you think. Broadly speaking, you want to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. The areas around the edges of most supermarkets tend to be home to healthy foods like fresh produce, meats and other natural items that pack more nutrition per calorie. The middle aisles tend to house all of that heavily processed junk you’re better off avoiding.

But to simplify the process even more, we’ve developed a four-step game plan—for a four-quarter game—that you can use to quickly track down all the foods you need and avoid the ones you don’t. If you’re serious about maximizing muscle gains, here’s your winning strategy.

Ready? Let’s play ball! (Saving dough? Check out our Grocery List for Eating Healthy on a Budget.)

Finding the "In-Bounds" Foods

First Quarter: Head to the produce section. Stock up on fresh fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. All are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that can help improve recovery after workouts and reduce muscle soreness. But farm-fresh foods aren’t just helpful after your gym session. Consuming fruit with protein an hour before hitting the weight room will provide you with a natural source of energizing carbohydrates.

Second Quarter: Go hunting. Protein is essential for muscle growth. Some of the best sources of this mighty nutrient are lean cuts of red meat like beef, pork or lamb. Poultry options like chicken and turkey or freshly caught fish also provide high-quality protein in low-calorie packages.

Third Quarter: Head to the dairy aisle. Besides meats and poultry, dairy items like eggs, cheese, yogurt and milk are all excellent sources of protein. And they come with an added bonus: most dairy products are high in calcium, which supports bone health. Oh, and if you want a fast recovery drink to help you bounce back from your next gym session, don’t forget to grab chocolate milk. Its blend of protein and carbs replenishes glycogen stores and rebuilds muscle tissue.

Fourth Quarter: Head inside for grains. OK, by this point in the game, your cart is getting full and your will to shop is draining fast. But don’t give up. Head into the aisles, but don’t get distracted by those highly-processed snack foods. Instead, chase down arginine-rich oatmeal, brown rice and other whole grains that are sources of quality carbohydrates. Snag a few cans or packages of protein-rich beans while you're there. Now, you’re ready to make one last drive for the goal line—or rather, the checkout line.

Overtime: As you’re making a beeline to the cashier, finish strong by purchasing a case of bottled water. Water keeps you hydrated, helps transport the carbohydrates and proteins you eat to the muscles that need them, and assists in clearing your body of free radicals and waste. (Read Hydration Facts Athletes Need to Know.)

Avoiding the "Out-of-Bounds" Foods

Like in any good game against a strong opponent, there may be setbacks in your search for the right muscle foods. So try to steer clear of fouls and penalties: sugary processed cereals, cookies, cake, candy, chips, crackers, soda and “fruit drinks” (buy only fruit juices with “100% pure juice” on the label). Finally, dietary infractions don’t just happen in carb-heavy foods. Protein sources like lunchmeat, hot dogs and sausages should also be avoided. These tend to pack a lot of sodium, nitrates, fat or other processed junk that you just don’t need.

Jim Carpentier
- Jim Carpentier is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, New Jersey-licensed massage therapist and a health/fitness writer. He currently serves as associate health and wellness...
Jim Carpentier
- Jim Carpentier is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, New Jersey-licensed massage therapist and a health/fitness writer. He currently serves as associate health and wellness...
More Cool Stuff You'll Like

Are You Eating Too Much Protein?

Protein intake is important for developing lean muscle mass and strength. Many times athletes find themselves eating large quantities exceeding 1.5-2...

Vegetarian Athlete Tips: Olympic Swimmer Kate Ziegler

Small Change, Big Difference: 5 Foods You Should Buy Organic

Brown Rice vs. White Rice: Does It Really Matter?

5 Ways Junk Food Can Mess With Your Head

Healthy (and Unhealthy) BBQ Ideas For Athletes

The Healthiest (And Unhealthiest) Ways to Eat Chicken

10 Easy Ways to Eat Real Food

STUDY: Eat More Fruits and Veggies, Live (Almost) Forever

6 Eating Mistakes That Undo Your Workouts

How Friends and Family Affect Your Food Choices

5 Ways to Fuel Your Early Morning Workout

Spice Up Your Healthy Cooking With These Lively Combos

The Boston Cannons'

A Sneaky Food Additive Athletes Should Avoid

5 Protein-Packed Recovery Shakes

5 'Good Foods' That Might Be Bad for You

10 Athlete-Approved, High-Protein Healthy Cereals

You Should Eat the Peel of These 12 Fruits and Vegetables

Diet Changes: 5 Tips to Help You Stick to Your Plan

9 Athlete-Approved Peanut Butter Sandwiches

The Cheat Meal Day: Why It's Not So Smart

Terrible Toppings: The 5 Worst Things We Put on Food

The 6 Worst Foods for Athletes

Salad Showdown: Which Greens Are the Healthiest?

How to Eat Organic Without Breaking the Bank

3 Nutrition Mistakes Endurance Athletes Make and How to Fix Them

5 Nutritional Power Combos for Athletes

Living Near Fast Food Could Increase Your Odds of Obesity

Fuel Up Fast With 4 Smoothies From the New York Giants

11 Food Services That Deliver Ready-Made Nutritious Meals

Where the Paleo Diet Falls Short

Tips for Healthy Weight Gain

Healthy Makeovers for 3 Classic Meals

3 Fruits and 3 Vegetables Athletes Must Eat

5 Non-Boring Ways To Eat Chicken

7 Foods That Are Ruining Your Workouts

12 Foods Every Athlete Should Eat

The Best Foods for Digestive Health

Load Up on These Foods at Your Backyard Barbecue

How to Deal With Your Sugar Cravings

5 'Healthy' Side Dishes That Are Worse Than French Fries

The Case for Red Meat

Why You Need Dietary Fiber

How Undereating Can Make You Gain Weight

5 Delicious Ways to Make Junk Food Less Junky

5 Foods That Are Stunningly High in Sodium

4 'Bad Foods' That Might be Good for You

5 Healthy Foods That Got a Bad Rap