Moderation: Making you sicker and fatter, or keeping you sane?
Posted May 22, 2016
Updated March 22
“Everything in moderation.” While this dieter’s mantra defines success for some, it spells disaster for many and gives rise to several questions: What does moderation really mean? Why does it work for some people and not others? How can I eat the foods I love but also feel great and maintain a healthy weight? The good news is that moderation works. The bad news is that most people are doing it wrong.
What is moderation, really?
Moderation is defined as the avoidance of excess or extremes. One of the major benefits of eating in moderation is that the “all foods can fit” approach removes feelings of deprivation that often go hand in hand with dieting, leading to binges on “junk” foods. It also opens the door to eating intuitively, a practice based on becoming attuned to the body’s hunger signals, wants and needs, which may be a more effective way to attain a healthy weight than traditional dieting. Eating moderately can be a little more difficult than following a strict diet plan, but also provides freedom from preoccupation with food and allows fuller participation in life events like birthday parties, wedding celebrations and nights out with friends or family.
While moderation can be a powerful tool to make changes in the way you eat more sustainable, it can also serve to cripple your chances of success. Many would-be dieters think they eat in moderation until they keep and evaluate a log of their eating habits and find that the once-a-week brownie is followed by a once-a-week donut, once-a-week bag of chips, once-a-week soda, once-a-week fast-food break and a few other consistent once-a-week treats. Even though each item is eaten infrequently, the consistent inclusion of less than healthy foods creates a pattern that defies moderation and more often than not leads to failure.
How to use moderation successfully
The 80/20 principle makes eating moderately more concrete by encouraging making the healthiest choices you can about 80 percent of the time and allowing yourself some leeway during the remaining 20 percent. This means that out of the 21 meals most people eat during a week, about four of those meals would include an item that is not considered healthy. Those with aggressive weight loss, blood sugar control, or cholesterol management goals often find more rapid success by shooting for 90 percent healthy, 10 percent splurge until reaching their health goals.
As always, foods eaten in moderation should be kept in balance with the rest of the meal; about half should be coming from vegetables, a quarter from protein, and a quarter from carbohydrates. If you’ll be having a slice of cake at a birthday party one night, skip the mashed potatoes at dinner. If your great-grandma’s secret recipe for fried chicken is served at a family gathering, keep it to no more than 25 percent of what you eat.
Another way to practice moderation is to ask yourself a simple question each time before you eat a treat: “Do I really want this right now?” It’s fairly common to eat something unhealthy out of habit, or even simply because it’s available. If you weren’t thinking about a brownie before your co-worker dropped by your desk and dropped one off, you probably don’t actually want it. If you drink nothing but soda or juice all day because that’s what you’ve always done, try replacing it with water and skipping the sweet drinks except on special occasions.
Save your splurges for things that you really want, and when you have them, enjoy them. As simple as that sounds, many people don’t. Taking the time to fully experience how foods impact each of your senses can help create an experience in your brain that leaves you feeling satisfied with one rather than 10. Save treats for a time when you can really experience and savor the taste, smell, visual appeal, mouth feel and even the sound of yourself chewing.
If you still find it hard to eat certain foods in moderation, it may be helpful to either omit that food for a short period before reintroducing it or taper down the frequency of your intake. If cookies are your kryptonite and you find that you can never eat less than five at a time, try limiting yourself to three, then two, then one, waiting to progress until the previous step feels comfortable and easy to you. If you drink a 44 ounce soda every day and want to slow down, try cutting it out completely for two weeks and then adding it back in mindfully and rarely.
In answer to the title’s question, moderation can be a critical component of long-term diet success if used properly. Perhaps a better philosophy is, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Shannon Adair is a Registered Dietitian and health coach. She works with individuals to promote simple lifestyle changes that result in lasting health improvements.