The right way to "do lunch"

Smart choices for your midday meal may help set the stage for healthier eating throughout the day.

The classic American lunch — a deli sandwich, potato chips, and a soda — isn't exactly heart-friendly fare. Even salad bars can be tricky to navigate when you're trying to choose a nutritious but satisfying lunch. In fact, more than half of employed Americans who usually eat lunch on the job find it hard to eat a healthy lunch, according to a recent survey from the American Heart Association.

"Helping people understand what makes a healthy lunch may help them eat fewer calories and maybe even inspire them to make healthier food decisions the rest of the day," says Dr. Anne Thorndike, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. In a study of nearly 5,700 hospital employees, she and colleagues found that labeling cafeteria foods with simple "traffic light" symbols that reflected their relative health value was linked to healthier choices by employees. They ate fewer calories, mostly by eating fewer high-fat, high-calorie "red light" foods and more "green light" foods (in which the main ingredient was fruit, vegetable, whole grain, lean protein, or low-fat dairy). What's more, these dietary shifts lasted over a period of two years. For employees who visited the cafeteria most frequently, the estimated drop in calories could translate to a weight loss of up to 4.4 pounds over time, says Dr. Thorndike. The study was published July 10 in JAMA Network Open.

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