My Daughter Eats Better By Following The Traffic Lights

Childhood obesity is a big problem (pun intended). One out of three children and adolescents in this country are considered obese or overweight based on their body-mass index (BMI). In our pages we've talked about the root causes: the activity deficit caused by today's sedentary lifestyle—less walking to school, less gym and recess, more game-playing; unhealthy eating, characterized by excessive consumption of processed, high-fat, high-sugar foods; and a general lack of awareness or acknowledgement among parents whose kids weigh too much relative to their size and age (defined as being above the 85th percentile in BMI)—a red flag that they may be heading for a weight problem.

On this last point I speak from personal experience. My 10-year-old daughter has always been an active child. She dances five days a week and would do so even more if she had time. She lives in Manhattan, which is to say she does plenty of walking. Despite all this exercise, she has struggled with her weight in the past couple of years. Previous generations might have dismissed the extra pounds as "baby fat" she'd outgrow. At checkups, the pediatrician has talked to her about portion control and cutting down on sweets. But we couldn't come up with an easy, guilt-free way to put these strategies into action. When she asked for help in making smarter choices, we realized we needed some guidance.

That's why I was so intrigued by Kurbo, a new online weight-loss program for kids ages 8 to 18. Based on 30 years of pediatric weight-loss programs at Stanford University and SUNY Buffalo, Kurbo aims to change your child's relationship with food and help her become a more mindful eater. The concept is simple: Every food is categorized like a traffic light. Fresh fruits and vegetables are green (good to go!). Yellow-light foods (1% milk, pasta, lean ground beef) are fine as long as you use caution. And red-light foods (fries, cookies, sweetened drinks) need to be reduced.

Kurbo has a three-tiered approach to achieving change. A coach chats with you and your child weekly to review food choices and exercise for the past week and discuss upcoming goals. A virtual coach provides smart food suggestions based on previous choices. And a mobile app lets your child track what she eats each day (along with offering games and weekly challenges). The cost is $25 per month per month for the basic service (in which you communicate by text) and $75 if you want weekly one-on-one video-coaching sessions.

My daughter was reluctant to try out Kurbo at first. But as soon as she "met" Esther Levy, her coach (and a former dancer), she was sold on the idea. Esther started her with a weekly "allowance" of 42 reds, then began to whittle it down. Within 12 weeks, she was down to 28. Logging her daily intake on her iPod touch (the app works on Apple iOS and Android) proved far easier than I imagined. The app was intuitive, and she quickly made entering the data after dinner part of her routine.

Esther was enthusiastic and supportive throughout, praising her progress and brushing aside little slipups (hello, Thanksgiving!). She helped us devise strategies for making little changes every week—from adding fruit to breakfast to suggesting "yellow light" snacks to replace the sugarcoated cereal that had once been an afternoon staple. Eventually, the meetings became shorter and almost seemed superfluous. By then my daughter knew which foods to limit, and was eating better on her own—without nagging and only occasional reminders. She'd take a piece of white bread, then put it back, saying, "I've decided to make a smart food decision. This isn't worth wasting a red on."

Two months later, she has mainly kept up her revamped habits: limiting desserts to weekends, cutting down on her carbs, eating healthier cereals. I can't say it's had a magical effect on her weight. But she's curbed her pattern of gaining, and, more important, she looks and feels better. My daughter still points out wistfully that some friends can eat all kinds of junk and stay super skinny. She doesn't have that luxury. But making the necessary changes now will go a long way toward ensuring that she won't need to worry about her weight in the future.

David Sparrow is a senior editor at Parents and a dad of two.

Healthy eating is the foundation of a healthy life. Here is how you can raise nutrition-smart kids.

Image courtesy of Kurbo

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