By Nike Training
Try this super simple system that’s 100% personal to what, and how, you like to eat.
When we think about eating healthy, rule-based diets come to mind. You know the type: “Don’t eat this!” and “Do eat that.” Often, these diets focus on macronutrients (how much fat and protein to have versus how many carbs) or they zero in on specific foods groups (say, telling you to load up on veggies, avoid the grains).
These prescriptive, restrictive diets aren’t inherently bad. But they focus on the crowd, not the person, says Brian St. Pierre, a coach at Precision Nutrition, a company that designs wellness programs for elite and everyday athletes. “Rule-based diets work for some people, but not for everybody,” says St. Pierre. He and the experts at Precision Nutrition advocate for a different, personalized approach, called the red-yellow-green system.
Red represents the stop-and-consider foods — maybe they’re super indulgent, or they make you feel bad physically or mentally after eating them. Yellow represents foods with some kind of contextual condition. You only eat these when you’re celebrating or during holidays. Green foods are any time, anywhere, these-foods-will-always-make-me-feel-good fare.
“The color designations are different for everyone,” says Krista Scott-Dixon, the director of curriculum at Precision Nutrition and a nutrition educator with 20 years of experience. “For instance, I have ice cream in my freezer, and it’s been there for six months; I don’t crave it. But someone else might crave ice cream so much, they can’t control themselves around it. Just having it in the house means it’s going to get gobbled up in five minutes, and the person will likely feel guilty afterward. That’s a red light.”
“The goal is to continually improve your intake — more greens, fewer yellows and reds.”
To begin categorizing your reds, yellows and greens, take a few minutes to think about the foods you eat most often — the breakfast, lunch and dinner staples, along with the on-the-fly choices — and what color those are for you. The aim is simple: Eat more of what makes you feel good, less of what doesn’t. There’s no perfect or prescribed amount of greens, yellows and reds. The goal is to continually improve your intake — more greens, fewer yellows and reds.
Don’t worry, if you love cookies and French fries but know they’re fire-truck red for you, no one expects you to stop eating them completely. “We only see no-reds for people who are paid for how they look or perform,” St. Pierre says. “For the rest of us, you don't need to be indulgence-free to be healthy, fit and strong.”
St. Pierre and Scott-Dixon have used the red-yellow-green method with hundreds of Precision Nutrition clients, and found it does multiple positive things: First, it’s empowering. You decide what foods go in what category, without anyone telling you that you can’t eat one thing or that you have to eat something else to be healthy. “This allows for self-exploration and discovery — what are your personal nutritional needs and what works best for you?” says St. Pierre. While we might know it subconsciously, we rarely take a moment to define the foods that make us feel our best. “This takes nutrition out of the realm of abstract magical formulas about superfoods and makes it based in real-life — your life,” says Scott-Dixon.
What many people don’t realize is that the majority of nutritional recommendations are based on research that’s calculated averages — the average response for the average individual. So, while we know that whole grains can be good for our bodies, that doesn’t account for the celiac who has a terrible reaction to eating sourdough. If you’re someone who struggles with a particular food group, be it grains, cruciferous vegetables or nuts and seeds, and you see those foods included on a diet’s “must-eat” list, it can make you feel dismissive of the whole plan, says St. Pierre.
“As you change, evolve and grow healthier, know that the way you categorize your foods will too.”
As you change, evolve and grow healthier, know that the way you categorize your foods will too. This is another way in which the red-yellow-green concept allows for the kind of flexibility and personalization that blanket recommendations can’t, says St. Pierre.
The consistent thread, he says, is thoughtfulness. No matter which color category a food is in, pause first and ask yourself, “Why am I eating this?” Employing this questioning method will help you in situations where there are only red-light foods. You can still enjoy those foods, he says. The key is to tell yourself: “I'm going to make the conscious choice to eat some chips and cookies, but I'm going to do it slowly, enjoy it, and stop when I’m satisfied.”
This is what makes the red-yellow-green system so doable. There’s no “never eat!” list and you’re not vilifying foods groups, which both St. Pierre and Scott-Dixon say is a surefire way to make you want to eat them even more. Instead, you’re calling the shots and reaping the feel-good, look-good rewards for every smart decision.
Make It a Habit: Turn eating more of your green category of foods into a routine by anchoring the behavior to a habit you already have, like an afternoon snack. When you reach for a snack, think, “What color is that for me?” Each time you take the second to ask the question, remember to congratulate yourself. This will help ingrain the habit.