Could labeling the foods in your pantry and fridge using a color-coded, traffic-light-type system help you to make better food choices? If nothing else, would labels cause you to think twice about grabbing a less healthy food when a healthy choice was within easy reach? And could it change the way we think about food on a permanent basis? A two year study performed in the staff cafeteria at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston backs up this theory. A team of doctors wanted to determine if employees would make healthier choices if all foods were labeled with a green circle, a yellow circle or a red circle. Simple, yes?
“Choose Often” was printed on the green circles that were placed next to salads and the healthiest food offerings. Yellow circles indicated a “Good Choice” such as baked fish and rice and the red circles indicated the least healthy “On Occasion” foods, higher in fat, sodium and sugar. In addition, a strategy called “choice architecture” was implemented. The healthiest foods were placed first within easy reach of the diners. Water was placed at intervals throughout the cafeteria line.
Turns out the colorful indicators did help people skip the least healthy foods such as sodas and desserts and, as reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the healthier style of eating lasted throughout the entire length of the study. After 6 months, consumption of green labeled items rose by 12%, red labeled items dropped by 20% and the largest change, soda consumption dropped by 40%! The study showed that the labeling system had the potential to help people, if not to lose weight, to at least maintain their weight and that it changed the way people thought about their overall food choices.
When you stop thinking in terms of “good or bad” foods and instead think in terms of “every day and occasional” foods, you can change the way you control your eating habits.
So could you put this idea to work for you in your own home? Yes, you could actually label your foods or your pantry shelves or you could just keep the concept in mind to help you remember to choose healthy foods most of the time. And you can place your healthiest foods and snacks in the front of your fridge so you see them first. The concept works equally well with children. Fill a drawer or bin with a variety of healthy snacks, label it green and let kids choose whatever they want. Fill a red labeled bin with less healthy snacks that kids need permission to have or can choose occasionally. Chances are good that the kids will choose from the green labeled bin most of the time because they get to decide for themselves. Using this system helps kids learn to make healthy food choices.
People who generally eat a nutrient-rich diet will not destroy their health with an occasional treat. Conversely, people who eat a diet of mainly over-processed or fast foods will not gain much benefit by adding a serving of fruit. Before you eat, ask yourself what you really feel like eating. If you crave something sweet, indulge and enjoy but think quality over quantity. Including something healthy along with your treat will not only satisfy your craving, it may keep you fuller longer and help prevent going back for more. For example, berries or a handful of nuts with a piece of dark chocolate or a honey drizzled pear with a small serving of brie cheese.
All foods, no matter how healthy, should be eaten in portion controlled amounts when you are trying to lose or maintain your weight. A sampling of foods according to the color-coded frequency of consumption system might include:
- Green light foods which can be consumed on a daily basis may include a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, greens, lean protein, oily fish, low fat dairy, whole grains, green tea, sweet potatoes, legumes, oats, eggs, and air-popped popcorn.
- Yellow light foods to be enjoyed often but in moderate portion controlled amounts could include nuts and nut butters, avocados, red wine, dark chocolate, olive, coconut and seed oils, cheese, butter, white rice, and white potatoes.
- Red light foods to be consumed rarely, or not at all, include sodas, artificial sweeteners, processed meats and cheese, fast foods, high calorie sugary deserts, microwave popcorn, refined white flour, trans-fats, fried foods, salty snack foods, most breakfast cereals, and candy.