Food & Drink

Colors can be key to kids’ healthful eating

When little Danielle Dolgoff was just 3 years old, she looked up from her lunch and asked her mom how many calories were in her turkey sandwich.

“It’s a ‘green light’ food,” pediatrician Joanna Dolgoff told her daughter. “Don’t worry about calories. Just try to make good choices and eat green light foods.”

The metaphor stuck in their household. Now Dolgoff, who specializes in child and adolescent weight loss, also uses the colors of a traffic light to guide healthful food choices with young clients. The principles, outlined in her new book, “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right” (Rodale, $21.99), are easy for a child to grasp: Green light foods are healthful and should represent the bulk of a day’s intake. Yellow light foods should be eaten in moderation. And although red light foods should be restricted, they aren’t forbidden.

Color coding isn’t new. In the U.K, the traffic-light system is used on food labels to help consumers make smarter choices. And in 2005, the National Institutes of Health launched a childhood obesity and prevention program called We Can (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition) that uses the traffic light colors with the food categories “Go,” “Slow” and “Whoa.”

In “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right,” Dolgoff similarly divides food into three categories: green (Go), yellow (Slow) and red (Uh-Oh).

Green light foods usually have high amounts of nutrients and low levels of calories and fat grams, but Dolgoff – addressing the occasional need for convenience – includes “junky” green light foods, such as 100-calorie snack packs.

Yellow light foods are slightly higher in fat and calories that can be eaten in moderation. Red light foods are treats that can be eaten twice a week.

Because many foods are a mixture of ingredients that can be high or low in calories, they may count as green, yellow and/or red. Many fast foods, for example, qualify as combination foods. And no foods are off-limits.

“You have to be careful with weight loss,” Dolgoff said. “Adult diets are not good for kids ... (and diets) should be based on age, gender and stage of development.”

Here are some guidelines from “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right,” by Joanna Dolgoff:

Fuel up: Most fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables are “Free Fuel” (that) you can eat in unlimited quantity. Exceptions include potatoes, corn, some beans and avocados (which still are all green light foods).

Green light foods (Go) contain protein, fiber and other nutrients. They are lower in fat and calories than other foods. Examples: brown rice, whole-wheat bread, most nuts, fat-free or low-fat yogurt, fish, chicken and lean beef.

Yellow light foods (Slow) can be included in a child’s daily diet if eaten in the right portions. Examples: Olive oil, granola bars, dark chocolate, ice cream, soda, hot dog.

Red light foods (Uh-Oh) are treats that can be enjoyed twice a week. Examples: cake, pie, fried chicken, mozzarella cheese, heavy cream.