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Pittsburgh shoppers that used pre-planned lists saw a drop in weight and had more nutritious diets, according to new research.

The humble grocery list—that archaic pen-and-paper tool your parents agonized over before e-shopping existed—may contribute to healthier overall diets.

A study of 1,300 Pittsburgh residents found that shoppers that make grocery lists before heading to the store tend to consume more nutritious diets. Grocery-list shoppers also had a smaller collective body mass index—which means tighter waistlines.

Participants in the study were generally low-income and resided in neighborhoods considered to be under supplied with healthy foods (commonly called "food deserts"). The objective of the research, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, was to determine whether grocery lists contribute to healthier diets in food-deprived neighborhoods. Here's what they determined:

More frequent use of a shopping list was associated with a better-quality diet and slightly lower weight among high-risk, low-income individuals living in a food desert.

For U.S. cities—and the country, really—there's lessons to both take away and discard from this study.

First, the the term "food desert" is misleading. By applying the word to this study, the researchers imply that merely supplying low-income areas with vegetables and fruits will improve nutrition levels. Not so fast: "Obesity levels don’t drop when low-income city neighborhoods have or get grocery stores," wrote Slate in 2014, citing years of research on the subject. Studies of top-down nutrition efforts, including Michelle Obama's plan to get 1,500 food providers to open up in underserved communities, have been found to be unsuccessful.

Nonetheless, the health improvements that the simple act of shopping with a pre-planned list could have on communities is an important finding. "Those who reported always using a list had significantly higher dietary quality," the researchers write. Even after controlling for a number of variables—age, education level, perception of vegetables and fruits on personal nutrition—the results remained the same.

Why? The reasons aren't entirely clear. Given the limitations of the study, the researchers can only speculate on why a pre-planned grocery lists contribute to healthier eating. But some of the suggestions make sense:

  1. A list lowers the chances that a shopper will buy highly caloric foods. (A study of L.A. stores found that 70 percent of marketed items were considered junk food.)
  2. Grocery lists discourage impulse purchasing and over-consumption.
  3. Because low-income shoppers have less discretionary spending, a list prioritizes healthy choices.

The U.S. remains the most overweight population in the world. Shopping according to a well-thought out list, instead of with our eyes and hungry stomachs, might help keep off some of those pounds.

Top image: Corepics VOF / Shutterstock.com

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