Imagine walking into the supermarket. You’ve had a hard day, you’re borderline hangry, and you just want to grab something and go eat it. At a time like this, it’s hard to make healthy choices. But if you know what’s on your personal “traffic list,” it gets a whole lot easier.

Traffic Light Eating

The “traffic light” eating method that Precision Nutrition coaches use can help you create your own personal power-food list, one that supplies you with energy, helps you sleep better, creates a more balanced mood, and makes you want to keep going.

Grab a pen and paper and jot down your thoughts as you read the following categories.

Green Light Foods: What Makes You Feel Awesome?

These foods make you feel good—physically and emotionally.

You digest them well, you like the taste, and you have a healthy relationship with them. (Read: You can count on them for regular nourishment; you’re not just calling them up when you’re emotionally challenged.)

These differ widely from person to person. My husband is a steak and rice person while I prefer pork and potatoes. And my daughter (bless her youth) can still have gluten without any problems. I work with a couple who have similar hiking and skiing objectives, but one swears by liver pate while the other must go heavy on carbohydrates.

Yellow Light Foods: What Foods Work — Sometimes?

You might like these foods, but when you eat them regularly or in larger portions, you don’t feel too great. For example, a small portion of lentils may be fine, but a big bowl makes you blame the dog for the sudden odor in the room.

Alcohol and organic chips could wind up in this category, but so could kale or tomatoes.

What’s more, these can frequently change. For months my husband was eating fermented foods (to my daughter’s dismay) and then realized something had changed and he shifted to eating tomato sauce or red sauce for flavoring. I sometimes find that raw tomatoes give me cold sores, but cooking tomatoes in a gluten-free lasagna is fine.

Red Light Foods: What Makes You Hide After Eating Them?

There is no “bad food” per se, but red-light foods sure make you feel bad. They might cause allergic reactions or indigestion. They might make you feel super gassy like you’ve ballooned overnight. Or they might make you feel like you’ve lost control.

Ultra-processed foods fall into this category since most people find that, once they start eating them, they can’t stop. Packed with sugar and sodium and chemicals, they have been manufactured to make people want more and more of it. Cha-ching!

So-called “healthy” foods can also be red-light-listed too. For example, if you have a reaction to shellfish, they’re red. If you experience diarrhea after having yogurt or milk, dairy foods may be red-light foods. I find I get congested and sniffly anytime I have the smallest amount of gluten. While I do not have celiac disease, my gluten sensitivity means anything with gluten is red.

Your List Is Uniquely Yours

Consider how certain foods make you feel and think about yourself:

Does this food feel good in my body?

Do I get energy or feel sluggish after eating this food?

Does this food align with my culture and values, if that’s important to me?

Do I like how I behave when I’m around these foods?

Do I feel guilty about eating something?

When you choose foods that are mostly green, with a little yellow, and avoid the red, you’ll probably tend to eat healthier. But more importantly, you’ll likely feel a greater sense of autonomy, flexibility, and enjoyment when you eat.