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Why “Shop the Perimeter” is Kind of Bogus Advice

If you only shop the perimeter, you miss many nutritious choices that help turn ingredients into meals and snacks.

Updated 11/2020

Everyone eats, so everyone “knows” food. This is one of the reasons why many people feel comfortable providing nutrition advice to pretty much anyone who will listen. My guess is you are nodding because you have had uninvited advice doled out to you by well-intentioned strangers, family, and/or friends who have never received any training or coursework in nutrition. I won’t overly communicate about the details of my profession as a dietitian, or the fact that that I have a master’s degree, a minor in chemistry, training in anatomy and food science biochemistry, and I have completed medical coursework to understand the role of food in your body once you eat it. But it is important that you know this so you have a frame of reference of what makes me qualified to talk about this.   

I also won’t get into details of the various societal factors which influence food choices, from culture, to religion, to budget and other demographic explanations for why we choose to eat what we do. What I do want to get into for you is that these things are just some of the reasons why you should seek out someone who knows what they are talking about as opposed to someone who attended the “school of eating meals their whole life”. Because people who don’t know what they don’t know provide advice with unintended consequences. Like shopping the perimeter of a store.  The well-intentioned point of this sound byte advice is tha you find fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins, milk, cheese, and yogurt, and whole grains, too.  Yes, this is every food group and what many people refer to as “real food”.  So you ask yourself – what’s the problem?  It’s what’s missing in terms of other fantastic choices and the things that help turn ingredients into meals and snacks.

I’ve worked in many settings as a dietitian, including grocery stores. Over the years, this particular bit of advice to only shop the perimeter made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, so to speak. Sure, it would be great to provide easy-sounding advice like this if it actually worked. However, over time, you begin to realize that if you only shop the perimeter, you are missing:

  • Herbs and spices
  • Oatmeal
  • Beans/legumes, the” economical work horse” of food choices, packed with nutrients and fiber
  • Vegetable, chicken and beef low sodium broth
  • Brown rice
  • Popcorn kernels (a whole grain and Illinois’ state snack, by the way)
  • Vinegar
  • Olive and other vegetable oils that include/provide monounsaturated fats
  • Frozen, canned, and dried options of many of your favorite foods
  • 100% juice
  • Soap/dishwasher detergent and other necessary items for food safety
  • Etc…

If you do shop the perimeter, as mentioned above, you can find absolutely wonderful items like fruits and vegetables, fat free and low fat dairy, lean meats, and perhaps some whole grain bakery items can be found. You can also find

  • Bulk candy
  • Fried chicken and high fat deli salads
  • Cupcakes, donuts and other treat type bakery items
  • High sodium, high calorie, minimal nutrient foods
  • Punches and fruit cocktail and other beverages with minimal nutritional value
  • Etc…

None of these are bad or wrong. These are what we can refer to as party food, or sometimes food. Most likely, they aren’t the choices that the “shop the perimeter” message means to point you to for your every day grocery shopping experience.  This is why that snazzy sounding phrase doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. If you want a phrase to focus on, try one of these:

Eat a variety of foods each day and each week.

Enjoy foods from all five food groups.

Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

Balance higher calorie, less nutritious foods with nutrient-rich foods.

I’ll see you in the aisles, or maybe around the perimeter as we shop the whole store for all the wonderful choices we can find throughout.

By Kim Kirchherr

Dietitian and ACSM Certified Personal Trainer with farm to table expertise.