It wasn’t what you might expect to see in a grocery store: a doctor in a white coat leading a group of shoppers through the aisles, talking about diet, food choices, and supplements.

But there was Adam B. Kaufman, a gastroenterologist at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, at a Whole Foods fielding questions on how to get kids to eat more vegetables, which fats are healthy fats, and whether there are advantages to using dietary supplements. He’s part of a growing trend in the last five years to help patients develop healthier lifestyles by going out to where they food shop.

“It is a way to interact with the community and teach people to read labels, look at food as nutritional and not just boxes of food,” said Kaufman, one of several Main Line Health physicians who have volunteered to lead “Shop with the Doc” educational tours.

What people eat has a huge impact on their overall health, he said.

More than 39 percent of U.S. adults and 18 percent of children and adolescents are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The extra weight puts them at risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and orthopedic problems. Medical costs for those who are obese was about $1,400 higher than costs for normal-weight individuals, the agency reported.

Main Line Health and Whole Foods in Wynnewood have had a long-standing relationship. After hearing about the success of a similar program in California, the health-care system approached the grocery, said Chinwe R. Onyekere, director of health equity and graduate medical education at Main Line Health.

“It fit with the concept of meeting patients in the community where they live, work and play,” said Onyekere.

The shopping tours take place once a month, morning and evening, said Charlene Starankovic, director of marketing for Main Line Health. The groups are limited to 10 participants, who will be asked to preregister on the Main Line Health website, she said.

Rebekah Berlenbach, of Philadelphia, listens to Adam Kaufman, a gastroenterologist, as he answers shoppers' questions about healthy food choices. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer .
DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Rebekah Berlenbach, of Philadelphia, listens to Adam Kaufman, a gastroenterologist, as he answers shoppers' questions about healthy food choices. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer .

Lourdes Health System and St. Francis Medical Center in Camden partnered with Shop Rite grocers for their “Shop with a Doc” program. They also expanded the events-with-a-doctor idea to include dining, walking, and soon dancing.

“Lourdes Cardiology is really the driver behind all of this,” said Carol Lynn Daly, assistant vice president of communications at Lourdes. “It is trying to partner with the patients in developing healthy habits and recognizing how useful prevention is in their line of work.”

For Main Line Health’s Kaufman, who spends his days in the office or treating patients in procedure rooms, the program is a chance to spend time on the proactive end of medicine. His plan, he said, was to shop the perimeter of the store, where produce, dairy, meats and seafood are found, then dodge into the bulk-food aisle, with the final stop at the supplements.

“It provides me information about what patients think about,” Kaufman said. He can watch how people shop and what food choices they make. Armed with that information, Kaufman said he will pay closer attention to the concerns his patients have about what foods are best for their diets.

Some of the advice he dispensed on a recent tour was familiar: Plan before you shop; buy plenty of fresh vegetables; eat smaller, more frequent meals; stay away from the junk food aisles in the middle of the store; and when you get to the bakery displays, don’t think bigger is better.

“The key is to not eat the whole thing,” Kaufman joked as he held up a box of mini cinnamon rolls.

When looking at nutrition labels, focus on protein, fiber, and healthy fats and carbs, he said. Consider buying whole grains, nuts and beans from the bulk bins — it’s a great way to try a small sample and limit the costs of shopping.

Kaufman called the yogurt selection “incredibly intimidating.” He suggested trying the Icelandic varieties, which are higher in protein. Buying plain yogurt and adding fresh fruit will be healthier than buying flavored varieties, he said.

Rebekah Berlenbach, 49, of Philadelphia, said she tends to get “stuck in a rut” when it comes to shopping for the family and was hoping to find some inspiration.

“I haven’t thought about those colored carrots,” she said, after Kaufman noted them on the tour. She plans to give them a try, and to mix together different kinds of greens in her next salad. And while she tends to focus on no-fat foods, after listening to Kaufman, she said she will incorporate some healthy fats into her meals.

Kenya Nettingham, 45, a personal trainer at NBQ Fitness in Ardmore, came to make sure the nutrtion information he was passing on to his clients was up to date.

As Kaufman directed the group into the supplements aisle, he cautioned that the products are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that there are no controlled studies or data on their effectiveness.

"The price for supplements can add up,” Kaufman said. It would be better to spend that money in the produce aisle, he said.