A Plant-based ‘Traffic Light’ System

Last time we looked at a simple way to start to make some decisions about what kinds of foods to be eating. This categorised foods into 3 groups: animal foods, processed plant foods, and whole plant foods. A whole food plant-based way of eating obviously emphasises the final category, allows a little of the processed plant foods every now and then, and encourages the avoidance of animal foods. Once you have these down, we can add just a little more detail, while still keeping things simple, in order to enable you to eat in a way that we know will help you look and feel your best.

This post is going to focus on the ‘what’ of these choices rather than the ‘why’. If you’re happy just to take my word for it for now then you can get started already! I’ll write more about why foods are in various categories next time.

So without further ado, let’s move on to very briefly describe the ‘traffic light’ system I currently use:

‘Super’ Green

These are all your leafy greens. They’re good for many reasons, and are very high in nutrients and antioxidants, while being very low in calories. While it’s a little controversial, Dr Fuhrman’s ‘Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI)’ scores leafy greens the highest, with kale, collard greens, mustard greens, watercress, and swiss chard all scoring 1000 out of 1000. Dr Esselstyn loves leafy greens as they really help improve blood flow. So I’ve given them a category all of their own, not to say that you MUST have them every day, but to remind you it’s worth trying!


These are the foods that you can eat the most, as often as you like. Vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices are first up. But as you may have noticed, if you only eat these, you’ll pretty much be eating all day long and still getting hungry. So don’t forget to base your meals (especially when you’re starting out) around the ‘Energy Foods’: legumes, starchy vegetables, and whole grains. If you’re embarking on a plant-based lifestyle change and you are suddenly finding you’re lacking in energy or feeling rather hungry rather often, then add in more of these energy foods and things should improve very quickly. Remember too that you’ll often need to eat huge amounts of food compared to what you’ve been used to! 


These are ‘sometimes’ foods. For the most part, they belong to the ‘processed plant food’ category. There are a few ‘whole’ plant foods in here as well, like avocado. Without going into too much detail yet, this is because these foods are very high in energy and fat content.

Sugar and salt also make it into this category. Obviously there are things in here that are more nutritious than others but you’ll be getting plenty of nutrition already from your ‘Green’ category foods. So as a group, the ‘Orange’ category foods are things we should try to minimise. But these can make eating plant-based a little more fun, tasty, and manageable at times. There’s no need to completely ‘cut out’ sugar or salt for example, and at first knowing this may help you stick with the program. Over time you’ll find you enjoy these things less and less anyhow. I guess this is a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ category really.

Note that some of the higher fat foods have an asterisk and may need to be shifted to the ‘Red’ category, depending on your individual circumstances. If you’re trying to get off medication, reverse disease, or looking for maximum weight loss (while still keeping healthy) then you’ll generally do better avoiding these.


Not a lot needs to be said here. The only thing that should come as a surprise perhaps is oils. Ideally we would never have any of the foods in this category. Oil is certainly the hardest to avoid, but it’s well worth making the effort whenever possible.

There’s a few recommendations about supplementation on the chart too, but you’re best to check out my earlier posts about nutrition to get the full run down and guidelines more specific for New Zealanders. At least 100mcg a day of B12 is essential, and sunlight exposure is of course required for Vitamin D.

Next time I’ll talk about the rationale for some of the ‘Orange’ category foods, which involves a little about the difference between ‘whole foods plant-based’ and ‘vegan’ as well!

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