The Truth About Our Post-Holiday Grocery Shopping Habits

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After a couple months’ worth of indulgent holiday food, maybe you’re trying to be a little more virtuous with your eating habits. For many of us, that probably translates to: “I will make a point to buy healthy food and not junk at the grocery store.”

But according to a new study, we’re buying just as many unhealthy foods in the New Year as we did during the holiday season. And, we’re tossing more calories into our carts during the post-holiday time than any other time of year.

In the PLOS ONE study, researchers tracked the food purchases of 200 households in New York state from July 2010 to March 2011. They split the data into three separate buying periods: July to Thanksgiving served as a baseline for the consumers’ average purchases and spending, Thanksgiving through New Year’s was tabbed as the holiday season, and New Year’s to March was considered “post-holiday.”

Grocery purchases were considered healthy or less healthy based on a nutritional rating system used by the stores in the study. Researchers wanted to look at the types of purchases being made, as well as how many items were bought and the calorie totals in carts during each time period.

There was an uptick in the amount of unhealthy foods bought during the holidays, which was not surprising, says lead researcher Lizzy Pope, PhD, RD, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics. What was surprising was that despite the post-holiday season’s reputation for resolutions and “get healthy” goals, people continued to purchase unhealthy food.

“There was an increase in the healthy food bought after the New Year, but since the amount of unhealthy food purchased stayed the same, the total number of calories in shopping carts was greater than any other time during the year,” Pope tells Yahoo Health.

She says there are likely a few reasons people probably can’t curb their indulgent buys. “I think we get into a new status quo during the holiday season, and just get in automatic pilot in terms of what we’re throwing in our carts,” Pope says. “Another reason is that humans don’t like to experience loss. The holidays are already over, it’s kind of a bummer, and we just don’t want to cut these foods out yet.”

This creates what Pope calls a “health halo” around our eating habits. “If you throw more kale into your cart, then you can still buy the cookies,” she says. (Which, note to brain, is not exactly the case if you’re aiming for effective weight management.)

So, how do you truly kick your bad buying habits — and actually lose those few extra pounds you swore to shed? Pope says it’s about planning ahead and planning your cart.

“We think a couple strategies can help,” she explains. “Really resolve to use the shopping list, and stick to it. Do not go to the store and just pick out impulse buys, or shop on an empty stomach where temptation is hard to resist.”

Pope also suggests creating a visual divide in your cart, something that one of her colleagues’ past research has shown may work to better control food purchases. “One half of your purchases, or one side of the cart, has to be the good foods — like produce, lean meat, low-fat dairy, whole grains,” she says. “The other half can be junk. But seeing that visual of how much and what you’re putting in seems to help.”

Ultimately, it boils down to practicing mindfulness year-round. “There’s always another holiday with unhealthy foods around the corner, like all the snacks associated with Super Bowl Sunday, for instance,” Pope says. “I was just walking through the grocery store this past weekend, and already saw all the boxes of chocolate for Valentine’s Day in February.”

When one season rolls into the next, your health can roll off track, too — but only if you let it. “At first, I was just thinking, ‘Oh no,’” says Pope, upon seeing all those candies. “But really, that’s why awareness about healthier purchases and eating habits has to start now.”