When 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, 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 United Kingdom, the traffic-light system is used on food labels to help consumers make smarter choices. In 2005 in the United States, 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."
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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 might 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."
Tiffany Fellus, 11, of Roslyn, N.Y., tried several torturous adult-type diets, but it wasn't until she started Dolgoff's program that she began to lose weight.
"I've learned a lot about portion control," said Fellus, who has lost 30 pounds. But what the sixth-grader loves is that "it doesn't restrict me from eating what I want to eat."