With cases of obesity in the United States at record numbers, it’s important to look at all the ways that we, not only as individuals, but as a society, can have an impact on helping to correct the problem.

Coupons are popular as people look for ways to cut their food bill. But are these coupons really a savings, and what effect does using them regularly have on your health and weight?

In a recent article in Preventing Chronic Disease, it was reported that after researching 1,000 online coupons from grocery store chains, few coupons were for fresh fruits and vegetables. Instead, most were for processed snack foods, candies, desserts, prepared meals and cereals. Twelve percent of the coupons were for beverages, half of them for sodas, juices and sport drinks. We know that a diet consisting primarily of these products is not a healthy diet.

I’m observant when I’m in the grocery store because of my specialty. I like to see what food choices people make by looking at the contents of their carts at the checkout line.

While a colorful cart — one filled with lots of fresh produce and other nutritious items — is rare from my casual observations, the least nutritious carts I’ve observed are those of people who use a lot of coupons. It’s sad to watch someone who has clearly spent a lot of time looking for, choosing and cutting out food coupons roll out of the store with a cart filled with empty calories.

While they feel they’ve saved a great deal of money, in reality, they’ve paid more than the contents of their cart are worth. Even more importantly, most of what they’ve carried home does little to help with their health and weight management.

Like most people, I want to save money wherever I can. I wondered if I was missing out on something, so I experimented with using coupons for my grocery shopping. I found that it was difficult to find coupons for the nutritious foods I regularly consume. The conclusion of my experiment was that any coupons used must go through a rigorous screening process with health as the priority.

The bottom line is that “food” coupons (like most things pertaining to weight management) should be used mindfully. Here are a few tips:

1. Use coupons only for products you already buy or for equally good substitutes for those items.

2. Don’t cut out coupons for things you don’t use just because they’re a good deal. Think about your health and weight goals. Produce has lots of bulk and, therefore, is more filling. You can get more meals from fresh foods compared to packaged foods. So, a diet heavy in produce instead of coupon-bought processed foods could be cheaper in the end. Also, there may be other ways to reduce your grocery bill. A food co-op may get you the savings you want, along with the nutrition you need.

3. Survey your cart before checkout when you’re using coupons. Look for colorful foods. Is your cart full of foods in packages? You’re probably buying a lot of processed foods, which are packed with salt, sugar and calories and lack the good things your body needs to achieve weight and fitness goals.

4. Think of friends and family, too. If the food item is good for them, by all means, share the coupon. But if it’s junk food, perhaps they’re better off without it.

5. Switch your focus from coupons to in-store deals on products in the peripheral areas of your supermarket (where most of the nutrition lies). Grocery stores do have specials on produce from time to time. Consider using a specially priced item in various ways by trying different recipes with that one item. After all, that’s the way people used to cook and eat when they had to depend on seasonal, local foods. In a week’s time, for example, I’ve used kale in salad dishes, side dishes and pasta dishes.

6. Become educated in preparing quick, healthy meals so you don’t have to depend on processed foods to save time. Nutritious food can be fast food, too. For more on this, go online to bit.ly/1l2feOb.

Let’s not be so quick to use food coupons just because they appear to be good deals. Do you really want unknown entities influencing what you eat? Their objective might not be in your best interest.

Previously published in the Tampa Bay Times