How traffic light signals could help you eat healthier

How traffic light signals could help you eat healthier

Imagine eating out and seeing a green light on your menu to signify low calorie content. Think this would affect what you order? New research suggests this traffic-light style labeling helps people make healthier choices while dining out.

In fact, labeling menu items with red, yellow and green reduced calories consumed by about 10 percent, compared to orders that involved no calorie information, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania.

During the study, corporate employees ordered lunch through an online portal that presented the menu items with calorie information via numeric or traffic light calorie labels, both together or none at all. Throughout the six-week study, 803 orders were placed by 249 study participants.

“Calorie labeling appears to be effective in an online environment where consumers have fewer distractions and the simpler traffic-light labeling seems as effective as standard calorie numbers,” said lead author Eric VanEpps in a press release.

“The similar effects of traffic light and numeric labeling suggests that consumers are making decisions based more on which choices seem healthier than on absolute calorie numbers,” said VanEpps.

Elizabeth Zawila, a registered dietitian at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital’s Health and Wellness Center in Downers Grove, Ill., says the traffic light system works because it‘s simple and easy to understand.

Eating out with family and friends is a lot of fun, but sometimes we don’t make the healthiest choices. Restaurant food tends to be higher in calories than what we might cook at home. The at-a-glance red, yellow and green traffic light provides enough nutritional information for diners to make an educated decision,” said Zawila.

While the traffic light label is not standard practice on menus today, Zawila offers the following tips to order a healthy and nutritious meal:

  • Plan ahead. Look at the restaurant’s menu ahead of time and mentally select a healthy option. Pre-planning helps people stay on track despite dining out.
  • Skip the bread basket. Instead, order a broth-based soup or salad with low-fat dressing.
  • Look for red flags. Be mindful of items that are described as creamy, breaded, crispy and stuffed.
  • Rethink your drink. Stay away from sugary, alcoholic drinks such as margaritas and other mixed drinks. Instead opt for a glass of wine, light beer or a vodka and tonic.
  • Box it up. Bring leftovers home so you can enjoy your meal the following day.
  • Share your dessert. Choose a fruit-based dessert and share it with a friend.

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About the Author

Johnna Kelly
Johnna Kelly

Johnna Kelly, healthe news contributor, is a manager of public affairs and marketing at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. She is a former newspaper reporter and spent nearly 10 years as a public relations professional working for state and county government. During her time as a communications staffer for the Illinois General Assembly, she was integral in drafting and passing legislation creating Andrea's Law, the nation's first murderer registry. In her spare time, she volunteers at a local homeless shelter, enjoys traveling, photography and watching the Chicago Bulls.