Shopping Lists and Health

Here at DiabetesSelfManagement.com, we sometimes offer tips and strategies for going grocery shopping (most recently, in Amy Campbell’s blog entry from earlier this month, “Navigating the Grocery Store“). Some of this advice rings familiar — don’t shop while hungry; shop the perimeter of the store — while other tips might be new to you, such as chewing gum while shopping or looking for deals on the bottom shelf. But one simple shopping strategy might be especially related to making healthy food choices, according to a new study: writing a grocery list.

The study, published in the May–June issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, looked at 1,372 residents of mostly poor, largely African-American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. As is often the case among residents of poor areas lacking in high-quality grocery stores, 78% of study participants were overweight or obese. According to a Reuters article on the study, researchers wanted to find out whether making a shopping list for groceries was associated with better eating habits or health outcomes. Nearly one-third of participants said that they “always” shopped with a grocery list, while 17% did so “often” and 26% did so only “occasionally.”

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The researchers found that people who used grocery lists consistently were more likely to be women and older, less likely to be employed, and more likely to be trying to eat fewer calories than people who only sometimes used grocery lists. But even after adjusting for these factors, people who used a grocery list all the time were more likely to follow a healthy diet than the others, according to a measure of diet quality from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called the Healthy Eating Index. Consistent users of grocery lists also had a body-mass index (BMI) one point lower, on average, than inconsistent users of grocery lists.

It’s important to note that this study didn’t attempt to examine whether using a grocery list leads to a better diet or to a lower BMI. Instead, what it shows is that using a grocery list is associated with the outcomes found in the study, without necessarily causing them. It’s possible that people who use grocery lists are simply more health-oriented, aside from wanting to eat fewer calories. But it’s also possible that using a grocery list helps some people resist the temptation to buy unhealthy foods, and helps them think ahead of time about what they should be buying, rather than simply improvising at the store.

What’s your relationship with grocery lists — do you always write one before going shopping, or do you sometimes just browse for what looks good to you? Have you noticed that you buy healthier items when you write a list? Do you think that writing a list might lead you to sometimes miss out on healthier items you didn’t think about ahead of time, like seasonal produce? Do you always stick to what’s on your list, or do you sometimes give in to cravings for other items? Leave a comment below!