Len Epstein's Stoplight Diet For Children circa 1988
Updated: Aug 15, 2019
Brilliantly simple. Many have copied and revised Dr. Epstein's family-based approach to childhood weight management, yet his food category system is still the most commonly used.
Dr. Leonard Epstein and his team at SUNY, Buffalo originally developed the Stoplight method as a family-based approach to obesity for children six through twelve years old. But it is a program everyone can use for weight management, no matter your age.
The brilliance of the Stoplight approach is its simplicity
Childhood and adolescent weight management is a family issue. The whole family needs to get on board with changing their diet and meal behaviors to help an overweight child reach a healthy weight. Parents need to be good role models for their children. But what does that mean? What do you do to help your child? And who has time for a complicated program?
Dr. Epstein devised a simple method, dividing all foods into three groups: GREEN, YELLOW, or RED. GREEN means "GO," YELLOW means "SLOW," and RED means "WHOA."
GREEN "GO" foods are low energy density (low cal) and most are high nutrient density foods. Most are high in fiber and low in fat. This category includes vegetables, fruits, low calorie beverages, and diet beverages.
YELLOW "SLOW" foods are moderate in calories and rich in nutrients. They are the mainstay of this approach to eating. This category includes most sources of protein, milk and dairy foods, grains, and fruits and vegetables.
RED "WHOA" foods tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients. High fat foods are in this category (mayonnaise, ice cream, fried chicken). High sugar foods that are nutrient poor are in this category (honey, jelly beans, Jell-O). Diet foods patterned after high calorie foods get put in this category (diet candy, diet cookies, etc,...). Bacon, duck, tuna packed in oil, almonds, peanuts and cashews all get included in the RED category because, although they are nutrient rich, they are very calorie-dense.
Dr. Epstein had two main goals for his obese pediatric patients: to encourage the children to eat nutrient rich rather than calorie dense foods, and to limit their calorie consumption.
In his program
parents were told to remove all RED foods from the home
RED food consumption was limited to no more than four times per week, and RED foods were to be eaten away from home
families learned self-monitoring by keeping food diaries, charting their weights, and tracking their exercise as a family
the family was taught the basics of healthy nutrition
In the simplest terms, you put together snacks and meals using a lot of GREEN foods, a moderate amount of YELLOW foods, and rarely eat RED foods. That's pretty easy to remember and to do.
Dr. Epstein's program successfully helped obese children lose significant weight and maintain the loss. At completion of his program, there was a 25.5% decrease in overweight. At 24 months, the decrease was 12.9% (1). That 24 month number might not seem that great, unless, like me you are constantly reading papers about weight loss studies and seeing that most people gain all their weight back after a year when they stop a diet program.
Lots of Copycats
Don't get me wrong. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I'm all for Dr. Epstein's idea continuing to be copied and used because it is a good system. I just wish more people would acknowledge the original idea was his.
The National Institutes of Health's We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children's Activity & Nutrition) campaign includes a handy GO, SLOW, and WHOA Foods chart you can download HERE.
The Traffic Light Diet book by Judith Wells (2004) is an (blatant ripoff) adaptation of Dr. Epstein's Stop-Light Diet.
Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right by Joanna Dolgoff, MD (2009) shockingly doesn't make a single mention of Dr. Epstein's work. When you read her book, if you didn't know better, you'd think she came up with this brilliant idea all by her wittle self.
Just Google stoplight diet, traffic light diet, and similar related terms for yourself. You will see that the copies and adaptations of Dr. Epstein's original work are as numerous as the stars in the sky (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean).
Epstein LH, Paluch RA, Gordy CC, Dorn J. Decreasing Sedentary Behaviors in Treating Pediatric Obesity. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2000;154(3):220–226. doi:10.1001/archpedi.154.3.220 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/348795