Sunday, April 25, 2010

Red Light Green Light

So here is the first component of our program. In our family we call it "red lights." We hoped that this system might help us keep track of what we were eating and help the girls think about their choices with a healthy standard in mind. In the past three weeks it has done that, and much, much more.

First, the nuts and bolts. Red lights refer to the kinds of foods that you want to eat only a little bit, as a treat. For us this is mainly desserts; we have boiled it down to foods that are high in sugar and or white flour. Lots of chemical additives also make foods a red-light in our family. We don't worry much about fat content because carbs seem to create the greatest challenges, and because foods high in sugar and white flour seem to almost always come up short on nutritional value. The right kinds of fats in moderate amounts are good for kids. But, the system can be fine tuned to your family's preferences and challenges around regulating unhealthy choices.

When we decided to try this, we sat the girls down and told them we wanted to work on making our family healthier, and we wanted to talk with them about different types of food. We introduced the simple categorization scheme of green-light, yellow-light, and red-light foods.

Green-light foods, we explained, are super healthy foods that you can always have when you are hungry. We started to list them and the girls jumped in: "apples! carrots! chicken! Cheese sticks! edamame! salad!". We added nuts, other kinds of meats and dairy products, all fruits and veggies. They got it and, much to our surprise, we had their attention.

Yellow-light foods, we continued, are the kinds of foods that kids tend to love but that are not really very healthy, like, again they jumped in: "white bread! macaroni and cheese! french fries!" Yes, we agreed. Then they started to ask questions. What about pizza? yellow. What about yogurt from the yogurt shop, with toppings? Yellow or red, depending on toppings and serving size. Plain yogurt at home with berries and honey is green, as long as honey is used carefully. Whole wheat pasta with pesto or tomato sauce is green. Yellow lights, we explained, are things that are ok to eat. You can have them, sometimes, but they are better in combination with other, healthier things. In short, they shouldn't be mostly what you eat.

Finally, the red lights. Their eyes get big. These are foods that everyone (in our family) loves, but they just aren't that good for you, so you really only want to eat a little bit, once in a while. They have too much sugar, way more than your body needs. So they are bad for your teeth? Yep. Sometimes they have chemicals, colors, stuff your body doesn't need or like at all. They smile knowingly: "candy! doughnuts! birthday cake! sugary-cereal!" We ask how many red lights they think they should have in a week, in order to be healthy. They suggest five (phew!), and we run with it.

Ok, we said. We are going to start counting our red lights, and make sure we only have five per week. Every time we have a red light, you put a red glass bead (thanks Mona) into a cup with your name on it (see photo). When you get to five, that's it for the week. On Sunday we will put the beads back and start again.

We started using red lights three weeks ago. A few friends I have told have also tried it, and we have all been amazed. Our kids are tracking what they are eating, and they are self regulating. They are not resistant, to the contrary, they are like little zealots. It is not a chore, it is a game. I am no longer the food police in my household. There is no haggling about food. Now, when my girls ask "Can we go out for ice cream?", I say, what do you think? how many red lights do you have? how many days till the end of the week? and they decide whether to choose ice cream at that moment, or not. When they ask, is this a red light? I say, I don't know, what's in it? They read labels, looking for sugar content, and they have started to notice differences in vitamin content, protein, fats, etc. Recently I pointed out the differences in length of ingredient lists. When lists are very long, I said, the food often has chemicals and other unhealthy stuff in it. That moves the food out of the green light category. They are thinking about portions: how many gobstoppers do you have to eat to get a red light? One is probably yellow, but a handful is red. They are taking pride in their healthy choices, because they are making them themselves, and they are motivated to comply with the red-light standard, because they chose it. I am sure it helps that Jim and I are also using the same standards.

Another HUGE benefit for us has been eliminating the coordination losses that have almost certainly contributed to some of the challenges we are currently facing. Both JIm and I work outside the home, so we have had caregivers for the past 9 years. All have acted very responsibly with the girls' diet, providing healthy choices 99% of the time, and all almost certainly have wanted to indulge the girls once in a while. It occurred to me the other day that when five adults each want to indulge the girls, say, once a week, without having any idea what other adults have offered them the day before, there are a lot of excess red lights flying around. Especially taking into account playdates, birthday parties and holidays. Now, all we have to do is count, and everyone is using the same tracking system.

So that is the basic outline. So far so good. The girls were in a wedding last night. They declined an invitation to get ice cream on Friday because they wanted wedding cake on Saturday. I am beginning to exhale.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Launch

About three weeks ago Jim and I decided to get accountable. The girls were asleep and we were laying in the dark, talking about how to get on top of our family fitness goals. We care a lot about our family's health, our eating and exercise habits, and how our girls are going to relate to their own bodies. Jim and I have had our own struggles, and they continue to this day. The universe blessed us with very healthy appetites, large frames, and sluggish metabolisms, and then dropped us into a time and place in which we are judged, and we judge others, for failing at thinness. Our goal has been to prep the girls for success in such a world without imposing its cruel standards. No wonder we can't sleep.

This particular conversation in the dark a few weeks ago was one of many, many such conversations, in which we have discussed different approaches to helping our daughters (and ourselves!) develop and maintain healthy eating habits, and an active lifestyle, without imposing shame and dissatisfaction about who we are. I have talked with pediatricians, psychotherapists, a life coach, three nannies, a homeopath, a naturopath and many, many other smart and concerned parents about these challenges. Jim likes to go to the science, and reads constantly about the latest studies on eating, exercise and health outcomes. The number of theories and approaches out there almost matches the zeal with which we seek an answer. What is the best thing to do?

Three weeks ago we came to our senses realized that -- shocking truth -- although everyone has a theory, no one actually knows. And that liberated us to try it our own way.

We are currently experimenting with our own family fitness/wellness program and you are invited to join us. It is called Thinkfit Family Fitness. Thinkfit is the name of a small fitness company of which Jim is currently CEO (see The Family Fitness part was inspired by our friends the Fearons, who have their own version.

Thinkfit Family Fitness includes three main components:

(1) guidelines for nutrition and eating habits, with a fun tracking system that even young kids can use to monitor their own choices
(2) a series of fun family exercise activities that kids can follow, enjoy, and even help develop and lead
(3) a set of underlying principles that empower families with challenges around food and fitness, rather than shaming them, by putting psychological well-being and self acceptance on par with cultural and medical standards of health and beauty

In doing this, and making our efforts public, we have four main goals:

(1) Improve our own family’s health and fitness by making ourselves accountable to a virtual audience of supporters and voyeurs
(2) Provide inspiration, community and social support for other families looking for help with their own fitness challenges and goals
(3) Promote ThinkFit, a small fitness company of which Jim is currently CEO, to families, schools and other institutions as a source of products and services that can support fun family fitness activities, and
(4) thinking really big now . . . make one small step toward understanding and intervening in the childhood obesity epidemic.
You can watch, comment, or try it yourselves, and please tell us what you think.