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Food Choices

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers have proven that shopping while hungry influences what you buy, making it more likely that you’ll choose higher-calorie foods
  • Shopping when you’re hungry may, in fact, make it more difficult for you to avoid all the junk-food choices lining the shelves, so have a healthful snack before you go to help you resist temptations
  • Supermarkets have many psychological traps inside, which are designed to influence your food choices toward higher-revenue (i.e. junk food) products
  • Using a grocery list, shopping with a basket instead of a cart, leaving your kids at home and shopping the store’s perimeter are tips to help you avoid unhealthful food purchases
  • You can also ditch the grocery store and shop for your food at farmer’s markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and food co-ops instead

Really? Never Go Shopping on an Empty Stomach

May 27, 2013 | 41,887 views

By Dr. Mercola

Do you struggle at the grocery store to stick to your list instead of giving in to junk-food temptations? There’s a simple trick that may help: eating a healthful snack before you shop.

The advice to avoid grocery shopping on an empty stomach has been around for some time, but researchers have now proven that shopping while hungry does influence what you buy…

Why You Should Avoid Grocery Shopping When You’re Hungry

In a two-part study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association,1 researchers first asked participants to shop for food in a simulated grocery store, choosing between healthful foods like vegetables and chicken breasts or junk foods. Half of the group had been given a snack first, and while both groups purchased a similar amount of food, those who hadn’t eaten first picked higher-calorie foods.

The second part of the study involved shoppers in an actual grocery store, and there, too, those shopping at times when they were most likely to be hungry purchased more calorically dense foods.

So it appears that shopping when you’re hungry may, in fact, make it more difficult for you to avoid all the junk-food choices lining the shelves. Cardiologist Dr. Rita Redberg wrote in an accompanying editorial:2

“I think all diet guides include the advice to ‘never go grocery shopping when you are hungry’—and when I had young children, I added ‘and never with young children’—because either of these factors seem to lead to less wise food choices.”

Grocery Stores Want You to Fail

…On your diet, that is. Supermarket chains go to great lengths to get you to buy what they want you to buy, which is the products that make them the most money, not necessarily those foods that are good for your health. The truth is, you’ll need to prepare yourself mentally before you even enter the store, committing to buying only what’s on your list. Otherwise, you’re likely to succumb to the psychological traps inside, which are designed to influence your food choices.

If you’re hungry on top of it, you’re even less likely to succeed at your shopping trip, which is why it is a good idea to grab a handful of nuts or drink a glass of fresh veggie juice before you head to the store.

You’re probably aware of the brightly colored displays, product samples, and prominent aisle endcaps trying to entice you to buy, but the marketing tricks used inside many popular supermarkets do not end there. Nor are they all this simple.

When one Time Magazine author and marketing consultant got a glimpse inside a grocery store sales laboratory (yes, there is such a thing), he described a large "control room" reminiscent of NASA's operations area, with rows of people intently observing shoppers on hundreds of screens, evaluating their behaviors and reactions to various displays and signage.

He wrote:3

'Take a careful look at this lady,' said one of the monitors, pointing to a middle-aged woman on the screen. 'She's about to enter our latest speed-bump area. It's designed to have her spend 45 seconds longer in this section, which can increase her average spend by as much as 73 percent. I call it the zone of seduction.'

The sign in front of the display read: '1.95. Maximum three cans per customer.' Before the shopper slowly sauntered off, she had carefully selected three cans for her cart.

The next time you go grocery shopping, take a look at the signs, the type of floor, and even the carts. Everything has been designed with an eye towards getting you to grab those three cans of something that was not on your list. The more attention you pay to the details, the more aware you’ll become of how you’re being manipulated.”

Common Psychological Traps Intended to Change the Way You Shop

Through sophisticated trials such as those described below, marketers have determined that:

  • During lean times, primitive survival instincts kick in, prompting you to purchase items that appear to be "limited" in some way. Using signage that restricts the sale to three cans per customer triggers the shopper's subconscious drive to hoard.
  • Displaying a dollar sign on the display decreases the likelihood of you making a purchase, because it's instinctively equated with "cost" or "spending."
  • Larger shopping carts equate to increased spending.
  • The quality of the flooring can increase or decrease your speed when shopping. Flooring that makes a "clickety-clac" sound tends to automatically slow down your pace, which increases the likelihood that some well-crafted sign will catch your attention and lead you to make a purchase you had not originally planned.

While this may sound simplistic, these tactics can be profoundly effective. In one instance, by simply changing the flooring in one section of a store, removing the dollar sign, and adding a three-cans-per-customer restriction, the sale of one particular canned food increased sevenfold4! Some grocers even pipe in artificial scents to entice you to buy more…

It’s Not Only the Grocery Stores That Are After Your Money…

Processed food manufacturers are also vying for their piece of the proverbial pie, and they’ve got marketing budgets that number in the billions to do it. Often, this starts in your own home, as 75 percent of US food manufacturers’ advertising budgets are allocated for television. There is one food commercial in every five minutes of television viewing, often involving popular TV and movie characters that kids recognize, or promising a free toy with the food purchase.5

So, your kids see the junk-food ads on TV, then they go with you to the grocery store where these products are carefully displayed in prominent areas. Which items do your kids usually want? The bag of cookies or breakfast cereal with their favorite cartoon character on the front of the box? Or a fresh, ripe tomato or an organically grown carrot?

The food manufacturers have primed your child (and you) to emotionally respond to their processed food products, so you feel good about buying cookies, chips and sugary cereal, even though you know it’s not good for your family’s health. Because fresh organically grown vegetables have no marketing budget to speak of (compared to processed food manufacturers), you have to rely on your intelligence and your rational thought, not your emotions, to purchase these kinds of fresh foods.

Of course, the grocery store is in on the act, placing high-revenue processed products in areas that you’re most likely to walk by and see… they may even put a “speed bump” in to make sure you slow down when you pass by the junk food. This is why you’ve got to shop smart when you go into the grocery store…

Arming Yourself With a List Is Grocery-Shopping 101

If you're not planning your meals (up to a week in advance, preferably), and if you're not keeping an accurate shopping list that corresponds to your planned meals, then you need to seriously consider starting this valuable practice for several good reasons:

  • It helps you avoid "emotional" purchases at the grocery store
  • It focuses your meals on freshly prepared, nutritionally viable choices not empty-calorie processed food meals
  • It helps you avoid fast food impulse purchases
  • It helps you take control of your health

If you are truly ready to take the time to prepare fresh and healthy food, and serve the kind of meals for your family that will give you health and not health issues, then you need to get serious about meal planning and making a shopping list focused on whole, fresh, organic foods. Then, stick to your list when you shop. This is the “secret” that can help you avoid falling prey to many supermarket marketing tactics.

12 Tips for Making the Most of Your Grocery Trip

It may seem silly to “prepare” yourself for a trip to the grocery store, but doing so can make a difference in the food choices you make. And if the tips that follow help you to come home with several bags of fresh whole foods versus processed junk, it will make a world of difference for your family’s health.

Some of the top tips to abide by include:

  1. Forget the end caps: The spots at the ends of each aisle often contain "sale items" that aren't very cheap -- but which are conveniently placed.
  2. Scan top and bottom shelves: The most expensive products are often deliberately placed at eye level. Take a moment to scan the entire shelf.  
  3. Appreciate the plain stuff: Product packaging is usually exceptionally bright. Less-gaudy house brands may be cheaper for the same quality.
  4. Don't fall for hyped numbers: Signs may say "10 for $10," or "2 for $5," but you'll usually get the same price if you buy only one, so do the math! Also avoid marketing gimmicks like that put limits on the number of items you can buy (shoppers will usually buy the maximum allotted, even if they don’t need it).
  5. Shop with a list: Preparing a list will help keep you focused—ideally on fresh, whole organic foods. Only buy what you need.
  6. Shop the store's perimeter: The outermost edge of the supermarket contains the healthier, non-processed foods. Once you become serious about healthy eating, you'll rarely have to venture into the aisles.
  7. Focus on fresh vegetables: The deeper and more vibrantly colored produce is packed with the most nutrients. They're also better for you than canned versions.
  8. Check the nutrition labels: The label helps you to identify ingredients, maximize nutrients and compare products.
  9. Do your own math, and check the per unit price: Bring a calculator with you to the store or use your smartphone. As previously stated, signs boasting "2 for $5" may not be an indication of a bargain at all. Check the individual price to determine whether buying two is really cheaper than just one. Also remember to compare sizes when evaluating the price of competing brands.
  10. Additionally, manufacturers of various products have begun tinkering with the pricing formula for multi-packs. It used to be that multi-packs were cheaper per unit than smaller or individual packs, but today you'll frequently find that smaller packages are cheaper per unit! Again, it can pay to pay attention to the details...

  11. Leave your kids at home: Many will buy a product they’ve never purchased before simply because their kids request it. Leaving them home, if possible, will help you avoid unhealthy temptations.
  12. Eat before you go: As mentioned, it will likely help you to resist junk-food options and instead buy healthier food items.
  13. Use a basket, not a shopping cart: A larger shopping cart has been shown to increase shoppers’ purchases by up to 40 percent.6 A basket gives you enough room for the staples you need for your meals without extra room for impulse buys.

Expand Your Food Shopping Beyond the Grocery Store

Conventional grocery stores are only one option for where to buy your food, and, often, they’re not the best choice in terms of finding fresh, healthful, sustainably and humanely grown food.

If you haven’t yet, try branching out to shop at farmer’s markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs or food co-ops in your area. You’ll get access to the freshest foods available, without any of the temptation from processed-food manufacturers or grocery marketers trying to sabotage your whole-foods-based diet.

[+] Sources and References

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