First Designed for Kids & Teens, Traffic Light Food System Proves Great for Adults Too

Thirty years ago Leonard Epstein, PhD, Head of Behavioral Medicine at University of Buffalo developed a food categorization system to help children lose weight based on green for “go,” yellow for “slow”and red for “whoa.”

His system combined data on nutrients and calories and was easy to understand. After all, he was designing for children and their families.  Green light foods are those that are low in sugar, low in fat, low in calorie density and have high nutritional value.  These include most fruits and vegetables. Kids were encouraged to eat these foods freely. Yellow light foods are nutrient-rich, moderate-calorie food–whole grain pasta, rice, and bread as well as lean proteins. With yellow light foods healthy portion control is still key. Finally, red light foods are foods that have little nutritional value and are high in sugar, fat and calories. They should be eaten sparingly and considered a “treat.”  Dr. Epstein’s approach was broadly praised and Stanford’s Center for Healthy Weight, among others, adapted the system for its highly successful family-based program.

What’s interesting is that in recent years, faced with the failure of traditional weight loss approaches, many have started to look to the Traffic Light system to help adults with weight management. In 2010, a team of researchers led by Anne Thorndike, MD, MPH,  from Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a study on the effects of food labeling on food choice. The goal was to provide information about healthy food choices in a simplified manner, one that did not require reading or understanding detailed food labels, and observe purchasing behavior. Using the Traffic Light System, the researchers applied color-coded labels to food in the hospital cafeteria.  The results were exactly what they had hoped for. After two years, overall purchases of green items had increased by 12 percent and red items decreased by 20 percent. In addition, sales of sugary red-light sodas dropped by 39 percent while green light beverages increased 10 percent.  

Adults, like kids, prefer and benefit from simpler solutions. In Thorndike’s study one woman noted that at first she thought the system was simple-minded and patronizing. But increasingly, she found herself considering the “color” of her cravings every time she ordered food.

In another study conducted at the health company Humana, researchers looked at the impact of numeric calorie vs Traffic Light color coding labels on online food purchases.  They found that both types of labels reduced calories by 10%. Traffic light labels achieved the same reduction in calories even in the absence of numeric information, suggesting that consumers benefit from data that identifies healthier choices but rely little on the calorie information.   Other studies have shown that calorie counting involves higher cognitive load and can even lead to increased food decision-making stress.

Having seen this data, pioneering companies are adopting the Traffic Light System in their corporate cafeterias both to promote healthier choices and to reduce stress. Google, for example, uses traffic light food labeling not only in its cafeteria, but for snack items as well. When National Public Radio moved into its new headquarters in 2013, its cafeteria menu included red, yellow, and green dots next to items. Even the Army has a Go for Green initiative that uses the traffic light method at dining facilities.

Outside the US, the shift from calories to color coding has been even more rapid.  A government study in the UK showed that traffic light labeling in combination with standard information about calories, protein , sugar, fat and salt is significantly easier to understand than using text-based information alone.  Today, the Departments of Health in both the UK and Australia have introduced voluntary traffic light food labeling schemes in their supermarkets to simplify healthy food selection.

For its part, Kurbo has licensed the Stanford Traffic Light program, adapted it into a mobile app and virtual coaching program which is used all over the world by kids and adults to develop healthier eating and exercise habits.  Lindsay Lagreid, a young professional woman who recently lost 20 lbs with help from the Kurbo app and coaching program, said she had struggled with weight all her life “and had tried every diet under the sun.”  

“Before, I would avoid tracking my unhealthy meals,” she says.  “But I’ve never felt that way with Kurbo because I know that I can have those red light foods. In addition, though the app was initially designed for kids, I was able to work through issues that adults face with weight loss, like going out to drinks with friends, without ever feeling judged by my coach.”

To learn more about this exciting new design for weight management programs, please attend our webinar May 11th, 1 pm EST with presenters Kurbo Co-founder Thea Runyan, who has spent 15 years with the Stanford Center for Healthy Weight,  and Massachusetts General cafeteria study author Anne Thorndike, MD, MPH.

Register for Webinar

¹ Thorndike, A. N., Riis, J., Sonnenberg, L. M., & Levy, D. E. (2014). Traffic-light labels and choice architecture: promoting healthy food choices. American journal of preventive medicine, 46(2), 143-149.

² http://www.massgeneral.org/News/pressrelease.aspx?id=1660

³ http://civileats.com/2015/01/07/stop-n-go-can-traffic-light-labels-help-us-eat-better/


Grain Bowls

Grains are hot. Grains in a bowl tossed with a bunch of yummy, crunchy, flavorful and nutritious ingredients is even hotter. All you need to do is pick a base, like brown rice, quinoa, millet, or oats, then decide if you’re going sweet or savory. For sweet bowls, you top the grain with a variety of fruit, spices, yogurt, and almonds. If you’re feeling savory, you add chopped veggies, protein, and a light sauce.
Grain bowls provide a balanced meal in one spot. Whole grains are packed with fiber, helping you feel fuller longer and keep everything moving through your system with ease. When consumed with the vitamins and minerals of fruit or veggies, your body is charged up for a healthy, energized, and wonderful day.


Meet Coach Lindsay: Dessert loving-outdoor adventure gal

Lindsay wanted to become a Kurbo Coach so she could inspire kids and families to live healthier lives. I believe that healthier lives mean happier and more fulfilled lives. I love meeting kids who are all at different stages in their health journeys. Each person I work with through Kurbo is so unique and I often learn a lot from the people I coach.”

As a coach, she is constantly inspired by her Kurbo kids and how determined they are to get healthier.  My most memorable moment was when I met a Kurbo kid who had decided to try out the program himself and was hoping that if it went well, his parents would also join.”


It’s Here!

The newest cookbook has arrived and is available for a free download! These healthy recipes are all from our Kurbo coaches and Kurbo kids and we hope you find them just as delicious as we do. Whether you are thinking of a new dish to bring to a holiday party or want to revamp your entire holiday dinner, you will find it in this book. Download today!



American Journal of Health Promotion Highlights Kurbo

In the latest issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion, Kurbo CEO and Co-founder Joanna Strober, is featured as an influential thinker in the wellness field. Kurbo was honored for being among the top innovative products and an example of “The Art of Health Promotion.” Through her creativity and innovation, Strober has created a program app that uses its digital environment to support and motivate kids and families to live healthier lives. Read more about Kurbo’s mission and Strober’s future plan. Check out the full article.

Kurbo Founder Tells Family Success Story to Goodhousekeeping

Kurbo CEO Joanna Strober shares with Goodhousekeeping magazine the story of her son’s struggle with his weight, along with her anxiety and feelings of powerlessness that came with it. As a mother, wanting the best for your child is inevitable, but when it comes to weight management, sometimes a parent isn’t the right person to enforce eating habits. Joanna explains this led to fights with her son, and after countless Google searches for alternative solutions, she decided to call her longtime friend Thea Runyan, who was the lead coach at Stanford’s Pediatric Weight Control Center. After realizing there was no way for Joanna’s son to participate virtually, Joanna and Thea continued to talk about creating their own solution, and soon Kurbo was established. Read More

Teen Weight Loss Success Story: Cora gains self-control and self-confidence

Cora decided to join Kurbo to gain confidence and control over her weight. I was gaining a lot of weight in short periods of time. I was doing the same things, but I just kept gaining weight so we went to the doctor and he told us about Kurbo. We’re finishing up our 3 month free period given by the clinic, and now but we’re going to subscribe to another 6 months! Now it is just a part of my everyday life,” Cora shares.  

She worked with Coach Lauren to set goals and learn which foods to eat more of. I like it because it’s not too difficult. They give you a guide and you don’t have to add and subtract a lot of points, it’s just that you have a certain number of red lights for the week. The program helped me see that I had previously been eating foods I thought were healthy but actually weren’t and vice versa. For example, I didn’t know hummus was a red (unless you make it yourself) and guacamole is actually a yellow but I had thought it was a red!” Cora says.  


MedCity Honors Kurbo for Innovative Patient Engagement

Kurbo was named among the Top 3 health start-ups for innovative patient engagement by a panel of health industry experts organized by the health industry publication MedCity.  MedCity’s editorial team chose 15 finalists from about 60 total submissions, and then the final three were chosen by a panel of industry experts.  Patient engagement is key to get patients involved in their own health and is the cornerstone for some of the behavior change that is necessary to move the needle in healthcare.

“Enabling patients to achieve their care plan is one of the thorniest issues in healthcare,” said Nancy Fabozzi, principal analyst for Connected Health at Frost & Sullivan and one of the judges on the panel.  The other judges who chose Kurbo as second runner-up were Dave deBronkart, also known as ePatient Dave;  Dr. Fred Rachman, CEO of Alliance of Chicago Community Health Services; and Lygeia Ricciardi, a national thought leader in consumer engagement and digital health.

Kurbo works closely with its Fortune 100, Medicaid and other institutional partners to ensure high enrollment  in its effective weight loss and fitness program.  In addition to taking a customized, multi-channel digital and offline approach to increase awareness and engagement with each partner, the Kurbo program itself was designed at the start to solve many key challenges to successful implementation.  As a mobile app, it ensures that participants of all ages, incomes and demographics have easy access.  Then daily feedback from Kurbo’s team of trained coaches help keep participants on track.  90 percent of participants who complete Kurbo’s initial 12-week program lose weight and improve BMI, along with their entire family achieving health benefits.

“Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States — with overall prevalence over 17%, highest in older children and adolescents — and health care providers struggle to find and implement effective interventions,” Dr.Rachman said. “Kurbo has taken an evidence-based intervention and made it accessible to children via mobile devices.”

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