Green means GO! Learn about the “Traffic Light” eating plan.
Life with diabetes makes us think about food a lot. We are constantly thinking of portion, effect on glucose levels, timing for medication and for overall health we think of choices as “good vs bad” food. I dislike those terms as they bring feelings of guilt which isn’t healthy or helpful in the long run. We all make choices daily, so knowing how to choose wisely based on what our health goals are needs to be simplified with less guilt.
To simplify decision-making around whether a food is healthy or not I love the concept of the Stop Light guide. Michael Greger, MD calls it “Dining by Traffic Light: Green is for Go, Red is for Stop”. Thinking of food in terms of healthy, we must think about what we might compare it to – if we are choosing a walnut vs a piece of candy, of course, the walnut will be the winner or the “good” choice. But what about an apple vs a handful of pistachios – both can be healthy based on the nutrients they contain, but a deeper look would be considering how much you need.
Since food is a basic necessity of life, I consider it like gas in a car – how much do you need to fill your fuel tank with to keep going? What is your overall caloric need on a day-to-day basis? Will it help you maintain weight, optimize glucose levels, achieve proper performance in exercise and assist with overall long-term health benefits?
Once you have an idea of how much you need, consider what you’ll fill your fuel tank with on a day-to-day basis. Start your day with 2000kcal for example, but understand the type of food you eat to account for this 2000kcal can be more or less beneficial now and long term. You could choose to spend your calories all in one meal on the large meat lover’s pizza, but what does that leave for the rest of the day? Where does that put you in terms of macro and micronutrient intake? To spend a bit more wisely as well as simplify so you aren’t counting calories all day long, consider the idea of “Traffic Light” eating.
the “Traffic Light” eating plan
Green light means GO – these are foods that are nutrient-dense and calorie poor. These are unprocessed and for the most part come from plants – vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes/lentils, spices, and unprocessed grains. You can fill up on them, especially the veggies, without a large portion of that 2000kcal allotment being used up. (Read our past newsletter posts by Kristen and Jenny on adding more rather than taking away). These fill us up while providing a wealth of micronutrients that are important to the maintenance of our bodies. While we still need to consider portions in terms of counting carbohydrates in these foods, the fact that they are not processed means our body doesn’t have anything unnatural to work on.
Yellow light means SLOW (or less) – Pay attention to portion. These may be somewhat processed such as frozen and seasoned vegetables, or canned vegetables, milk alternatives, etc. and would include lean quality meats. Eat less of these or include them along with the Green light foods to increase intake from flavor, etc.
Red light means STOP… and think about it (special treats) – Processed and Ultra-processed foods fill this category. Fast food, deep-fried, snack chips/crackers, hot dogs, dressing, condiments, and sauces, sweet or salty treats, and food colorings are included here. Also included would be any food that is processed to be low carb, high fat, fat-free, and made from a lot of artificial ingredients.
*Consider things we add to food to spice them up a bit. If you add some dressing to your salad to tolerate eating the salad, go for it with attention to portion. “Sometimes you need to add some yellow and red to get someone to eat the green” in Dr. Greger’s words. In the end, if this has you eating a lot more of the green foods, you are making a change that has good impact.
This is a simple guide that I have started using in the past few years in my own home to teach basic healthy intake to my kids. We created a Stop Light sign in our pantry as well as the refrigerator. Since there is no education in school today about health/food, and some schools have even stopped gym class, it is up to parents to ensure kids learn wise decisions. These will move forward with them in life, and if they also have diabetes, choices now will provide long-term benefits into adulthood.
Aim for mostly green, less yellow and stop to consider red foods when planning choices in meals.
If you’d like some assistance with putting the “Traffic Light” eating plan into action with consideration of your diabetes health management, please give our office a call (877-735-3648). We have a great team of Registered Dietitians to help you along the way.
Integrated Diabetes Services, Director of Lifestyle and Nutrition.
Jennifer holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Nutrition and Biology from the University of Wisconsin. She is a Registered (and Licensed) Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and Certified Trainer on most makes/models of insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitoring systems.