In case you couldn’t tell from my previous posts, I’m generally pretty “diet agnostic” and am open to the merits of ways of eating that don’t necessarily align with my personal views of what’s optimal – which I know I haven’t quite written about yet, but I’m getting to it, I promise.
However, there’s one concept that I’d love to see largely eliminated from the world of nutrition – “everything in moderation”.
Now, before I proceed with more about why I don’t like this phrase, I do believe some of the intent behind it is worthy.
For example, variety in one’s eating habits is generally accepted to promote nutritional adequacy.
Additionally, this phrase is often meant to discourage behaviors associated with disordered eating, but I’ll touch on this later.
There are some subtleties, however, related to “moderation” that are often not discussed or considered, and the phrase does little to provide any meaningful direction towards guiding one’s eating habits.
I am going to share a variety of thoughts throughout this post, many of which could easily be separate posts in and of themselves.
I apologize in advance for not diving too deeply into these individual subjects to give them the attention they deserve.
Here we go.
Let’s kick this off by defining moderation – “the avoidance of excess or extremes”
On the surface level, this is sound nutrition advice, as “excess” of anything is, by definition, “too much”, and “extreme” is often associated with “too much” or “too little”.
However, more close examination of these terms – and their relevance to what and how we eat – leaves much to be wanted.
What is “excess”?
When does eating something become “too much”?
That’s not really an easy question to answer.
I tend to think of “too much” as being the point at which the benefits of eating a given food are outweighed by the detriments.
Let’s take a piece of chocolate cake, for example.
For an individual who is completely happy with their body composition, their health, and their life, has a completely healthy digestive system, and no known sensitivities, intolerances, allergies, or other negative reactions to the ingredients used, and who would benefit from the pleasure of tasting the palatable sugar, fat, and texture of that cake, eating it may not be considered “excess”.
On the other hand, for an individual who is working to lose excess body fat, might experience a negative reaction to one of the ingredients used to create the cake, or who doesn’t enjoy chocolate cake, might consider the downsides of even one bite to outweigh benefits.
Then again, if that second individual’s grandmother baked that cake specifically for them on their birthday, and they’ve determined that eating it to make her feel good is worth the unpleasantries that might result from eating it, perhaps eating an entire slice might not be “too much”.
These are only a few general examples and scenarios, but they should suffice to illustrate that “excess” is not always an easily defined concept.
“Everything in moderation” doesn’t really provide much practical direction in this regard.
Moderators vs. abstainers
Often, “everything in moderation” is a more old-school way of saying “Treat yo’self!…but not too much”.
That is, it’s used to communicate the idea that limiting excessive (remember the points above) amounts of foods that offer primarily pleasure can be beneficial in terms of health and weight management, but that complete avoidance is a sure-fire way to result in going off the rails later and binging on whatever it is that we’ve been avoiding or restricting.
This approach can work really well…for some of us.
I’d like to share with you a concept that I learned about from the author, Gretchen Rubin.
Those of us matching the behavior pattern described above – who are very good at eating “just one”, “just a bite”, or “just a little bit”, but find that avoidance or restriction leads to binge episodes – might be referred to as “moderators”.
Moderators don’t particularly care for setting boundaries when it comes to pleasurable food (or pleasurable experiences and vices in general), but are good at not indulging to the point at which doing so will prevent them from making progress towards their goals (whatever those goals may be).
The thing is, not all of us are moderators.
Many of us are what we might refer to as “abstainers”.
Abstainers generally are NOT good at limiting pleasurable food to “just one”, “just a bite, or “just a little bit”.
For abstainers, that first bite of cake, handful of salted nuts, or cup of ice cream often results in indulging beyond the point of satisfaction, often to the point that it contributes to sustained excessive energy intake.
For abstainers, it IS easier to just say, “no, thank you” to a foods that they know offer little beyond setting off neural pathways associated with pleasure.
Abstainers find that hard boundaries make staying consistent with their eating habits easier, and find that they don’t feel deprived or overly-restricted by avoiding certain foods.
Some speculate that a majority (I believe I heard somewhere around 85%) of dietitians are moderators, which may explain how the “everything in moderation” advice became so prevalent in our collective psyche when it comes to food.
However, the population of the US as a whole is thought to be a bit closer to 50%/50% in terms of the split between moderators and abstainers.
That is, we might be telling 50% of the population to implement a strategy with indulgences that is going to set them up for failure.
Imagine that – there is no “one size fits all solution”.
The abstinence/moderator nuance doesn’t stop there.
Often, we might find benefit to taking different approaches with different foods.
For example, even though I am generally an abstainer, I usually don’t have a problem “moderating” my consumption of sweets.
I find it pretty easy to have “just a bite” of desserts; however, when it comes to combinations of salt and fat – like salted chips or nuts – “a handful” can easily turn into a bag full.
I’ve learned that it’s better for me to just not keep too many of these kinds of foods in my apartment.
Even though I don’t necessarily have any adverse physiological reaction to these foods, they make it easy for me to eat an amount that makes it more challenging to eat according to my overall caloric needs.
In my case, salty fatty foods are what we might call “trigger foods”, in that they trigger overconsumption.
Speaking of factors that trigger overconsumption…
Even if we have a clear idea of what our goals are, and what situations in which we might want to practice moderation, our environment now is not what it was years ago, and can make moderation in our current world quite challenging compared to our environment decades ago.
For millions of years, we’ve survived because we are wired to seek out energy dense, delicious food while expending as little energy as possible.
We spent a majority of our time on this rock having to hunt and forage for whatever we wanted to eat.
Even up until a few decades ago, we were largely limited to shopping at our local grocer, farmer, butcher, or baker, had to cook most of what we ate for ourselves, and meals were social or familial events.
We were mostly limited to meats, veggies, and other minimally processed ingredients, and eating pleasurable foods was generally an occasional “treat” due to cultural norms and convenience.
Nowadays, however, we can pick up a small device, press a few buttons, and have nearly anything delivered right to our homes.
Many of the foods available – and marketed – to us now have been engineered by REALLY smart people, with deep pockets, specifically to override our satiety signals and make “moderation” pretty damn hard.
The combinations of salt, sugar, fat, and different textures that we have access now to are completely unlike anything we might have had access to even 50 years ago.
Many of us are often eating alone, focusing not on our food, but on ripping through our Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu queues.
This distraction makes it easier to completely ignore the feedback mechanisms in our brains designed to tell us, “hey, you’re satisfied”.
In a nutshell, our world just isn’t as suited for “moderation” as much as it once was.
What might we want to “moderate”?
Nutrition is confusing.
Many of us are completely unaware, uninvolved, or misinformed when it comes to what role certain foods do or do not play in a “healthy” (admittedly a vague term) diet.
We’re overloaded with headlines, studies, sound bytes, news feed links, and tweets all about new studies telling us that something is going to kill us or make us fat – carbs, fats, gluten, FODMAPs, trans fats, sugar…the list goes on and on.
We’ve “identified” so many problematic ingredients that it’s hard to find any foods at all that haven’t been linked to obesity, cancer, or heart disease.
On top of that, we’re marketed all sorts of “health foods” that are just as energy-dense and nutrient-poor as the “junk” we are using them to replace.
Additionally, there are some foods that many of us eat regularly – and are even told are “healthy” – that don’t necessarily provide much nutritional benefit beyond energy and/or pleasure, but can be quite problematic in terms of promoting overconsumption, digestive distress, inflammation, and disease.
Should these foods be eaten “in moderation”?
Is there no benefit to avoiding these foods, at least for those of us who are more susceptible to their detrimental effects?
Is there no benefit to avoiding these foods just to “play it safe”, or to establish a baseline, free of the usual problematic suspects, before rotating them back in to see how they might affect us?
Is “everything” suitable for all of us to eat in “moderate” amounts?
Restriction and disordered eating
Now let’s talk about the second part of the “moderation” equation – avoiding extremes.
As mentioned above, the saying “everything in moderation” is often used to encourage regular indulgence as a means of avoiding the development of eating disorders.
I’m by no means an expert in psychology, and if you think you might be suffering from an eating disorder, the information below is not meant to replace the advice of a qualified professional.
The problem with this seems to me to be that eating disorders and “restrictive” diets (aren’t all “diets” in some way restrictive?) are often mixed up in terms of which is the cart and which is the horse.
However, I have a history of disordered eating myself, and have sought to learn as much as possible about how and why such behaviors develop.
It’s my understanding that disordered eating often is not the result of going on any kind of diet, but rather a symptom of deeper emotional issues – often related to self-worth and control – manifested through dieting.
That is, it’s not the food rules and specific diets that lead to eating disorders; rather, it’s deep emotional issues that manifest themselves through eating behaviors.
Much like coping with one’s emotions through drugs, sex, or other behaviors to the point of abuse, one might be coping with their emotions through food to the point of “abuse”.
This is why psychological help plays such a critical role in treating eating disorders.
Simply asking somebody battling anorexia, bulemia, or other form of disordered eating to practice “everything in moderation” is likely going to result in failure to make any progress towards establishing healthy eating habits.
What is “extreme”?
We’re not not done exploring the idea of “extremes”.
I’ll keep this section limited to a few brief points, as I think this might warrant a standalone blog post solely for exploring this subject.
I’ll admit that I get a bit frustrated when I read an article that calls any diet “extreme” – or “fad” or “unsustainable”, for that matter.
Extreme is defined as “reaching a high or the highest degree” or “furthest from the center or a given point; outermost”
The center point most often referenced is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as established by the US Department of Agriculture.
These guidelines largely dictate what eating habits are promoted by dietitians and doctors, served in schools and hospitals, and fed to our military.
Here’s the thing – the USDA’s purpose is NOT to determine and promote a diet for optimal health.
“The USDA’s vision is to expand economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production sustainability that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve and conserve our Nation’s natural resources through restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.”
Interestingly, their “My Plate” guideline for what we should eat – comprising relatively equivalent portions of protein, vegetables, grains, fruit, and a bit of dairy – doesn’t match the eating habits of (and wouldn’t have been possible for) any human population until the advent of industrial agriculture and globalization.
This means ways of eating like Paleo, keto, Atkins, Whole 30, or other ways of eating that result in avoidance of specific macronutrients or foods, are often labeled as “extreme”.
At the risk of coming off as combative, this seems to me to be the definition of a double standard, or even hypocrisy.
How is avoiding carbs considered more “extreme” than avoiding fats?
How is avoiding grains, which didn’t play a substantial role in the human diet until several thousand years ago, considered more extreme than avoiding meat, which humans have been eating for millions of years?
How is avoiding dairy, which roughly 65% of the human species loses the ability to digest past infancy, considered extreme?
Humans can thrive on a wide range of different eating habits, from the Masai and Inuit – who eat primarily animal flesh, blood, and milk – to the Kitavans and Okinawans – who eat primarily starchy plants.
Why are we using a government organization established within the past two centuries to determine what is “extreme” and what isn’t?
Is it so crazy that perhaps different ways of eating work better for different people?
Because that’s what seems to be reflected in the eating habits demonstrated throughout the majority of our history.
Summary and conclusion
“Moderation” is a myth.
It’s poorly defined and doesn’t account for individual needs, preferences, and goals, and doesn’t offer much in the way of behavioral tendencies.
We deserve better.