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Using a traffic light system to encourage healthier eating habits

A couple of traffic lights installations with the red ones turned on and the green and yellow off captured against a blue sky with several white clouds scattered over.

Imagine going to your favorite restaurant and discovering that high-calorie foods and sugar drinks were now listed in a red section on the menu, slightly healthier options were contained in a yellow box and nutrient-dense dishes were labeled green. Would you order differently?

The answer is "yes," according to findings (.pdf) published earlier this week. In the study, researchers analyzed data collected at the Massachusetts General Hospital cafeteria before and after implementing such a traffic light system. Results showed that color-coding foods and beverages "sustained healthier choices over two years."

At the Center for Healthy Weight at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, Stanford pediatrician Thomas Robinson, MD, and colleagues have also experienced notable success with the traffic light system, which they've used to classify foods in their pediatric weight control program for more than 15 years.

The key to the traffic light system, explains Robinson, is its lack of ambiguity and simplicity. He says, "Every food has a color (red, yellow or green) and you can count the foods you eat and set goals based on the colors. Because each food has a color there is a lot less room for rationalization or negotiation — it is what it is. We know it is much more difficult to count calories or balance types of nutrients, such as carbohydrates, protein and fat."

When I asked Robinson about potential pitfalls of the method, such as the problem of people categorizing foods differently, he told me:

Although the traffic light categories are usually defined based on nutritional characteristics of foods, the traffic light approach is a behavioral strategy rather than a specific diet. A traffic light approach can be created to fit with any nutritional goal and simplifies it to a point that one can keep track and count. A lot of my patients, students and colleagues have heard me say, "If you can't count it, you can't change it."

In our program we use traffic light categories based mainly on calorie (i.e. energy) density along with some additional characteristics of foods. It would be possible for others to create traffic light categories based on different food characteristics. But changing one's diet and weight control depends much more on learning to changes one's behavior than about learning about nutrition.

Previously:  To meet weight loss goals, start exercise and healthy eating programs at the same timeSugar intake, diabetes and kids: Q&A with a pediatric obesity expert and Can dish color influence how much you eat?
Photo by Horia Varlan

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