Moderation; it’s vastly unsexy and shunned by most of the pop diet books authors.
Moderation is the arch-nemesis of lightning-fast results and it’s perception of complication ambiguity are enough to remain ignored.
I feel compelled to preface my moderation flag-waving with some caveats.
1.“Moderation” is an ambiguous, subjective and personally defined concept.
2. There are people out there who thrive on “abstaining” (they are in the minority but this should be acknowledged).
My aim here then is three-fold:
1. Show that moderation IS in fact grounded in science.
2. Disambiguate the term “moderation”.
3. Help you re-define “moderation” and make it work for you.
Moderation: A working definition
The Webster definition of moderation is; “the avoidance of excess or extremes, especially in one’s behavior or political opinions.”
When it comes to eating, the best way to define moderation is; “A method of eating that does not exclude any food or category of food but keeps indulgences in check” (My definition – it’s a work in progress).
We will address the slippery slope of point #1 in a bit. But first..
Moderation: The Curious Backlash
I’ve heard people outright dismiss the idea of dietary moderation. This should come as no surprise as one peek at the best-selling diet books of the past decade will tell as that one food or another is responsible for our ill health. Borne of these fads emerged a loud battle cry of “screw moderation” – prompting Huff-po-esque pieces denouncing the concept balance and inclusion of all foods.
All of the anti-moderation musings tend to preach similar sermons; “moderation has no definition”… “Moderation is an excuse to eat what you want”… (Or the association fallacy) “Junk food peddlers use ‘everything in moderation’ to justify consuming their garbage!”.
Let me be clear, they are not incorrect on the first point. Being subjective and personally defined makes “everything in moderation” a slippery slope – and yes some will justify repeated indulgences under the guise of “everything in moderation”.
Moderation: Yes, it is evidence-based
Whenever topics are divisive it’s always best to see what actual science has to say about it. Eating “restraint” is categorized on a scale according to what’s called a “Dietary restraint scale”. Essentially a measurement of how strict one is with their diet. The literature does not bode well for restrictive restraint compared to “flexible” restraint (read: moderation).
As an example; this study showed rigid dieting strategies, but not flexible dieting strategies, were associated with eating disorder symptoms and higher BMI in non-obese women.
This study showed a strong relationship between flexible dieting and the absence of overeating, lower body mass and lower levels of depression and anxiety.
This study proposes a high susceptibility to eating problems may be caused by rigid control of eating behaviour. Conversely, flexible control of eating behaviour may be a less problematic strategy of long-term weight control.
These findings are also consistent with college age students, revealing that high restrictive control was associated with high Body Mass Index (BMI) and high disinhibition, and high flexible control was associated with low BMI and low disinhibition in women.
Also noteworthy; when subjects who had lost weight were followed up with a year later, guess which cognitive factor stood out the most in those who regained the weight? A tendency towards dichotomous thinking; precisely the kind of thinking espoused by most diet book authors.
These are just a few examples amongst an appreciable body of literature that points to the potential pitfalls of rigid dieting.
Anecdotally yes there are many cases of people having success through cutting out foods/categories of foods completely. I will repeat that if this is what works for you – have at it. Kindly do not write a book about it or extrapolate your results to the rest of the world. Thank you. It’s important to remember to that for every success story of someone who got great results through restrictive methods, there are several who continued to yo-yo and regained the weight – leading to more frustration.
Moderation: It’s less than you think
It’s time now to ask the tough love question; How is “everything in moderation” working for you? If you have a fat loss or health enhancement goal, are you seeing results? If the answer is no, or even a sustained pause, I’m going to challenge you to re-evaluate and re-frame what “moderation” looks like to you. If you’ve been justifying indulgences under the guise of “everything in moderation” – you’re doing it wrong.
I’m going to draw your attention to a detail that you may or may not have caught in the previous section. When examining the study data, the term “restraint” is used in context of both rigid and flexible. Flexible RESTRAINT… note there is a “restraining” component to this. Before we try and hammer out specifics, rest assured that your flexible dieting approach does require a kick in the comfort zone – a scaling back of sorts. It’s time to come to grips with the reality that your version of “moderation” is probably more than it should be.
The problem is that we need to take the airy-fairy, touchy-feelz and YOLO-ing out of moderation and put some “restraint” into the context of moderation.
Moderation: Re-defining it for YOU
It starts with looking at some general guidelines, having a solid grasp of what portion sizes should look like and having a very good idea of the calorie contents of various foods.
Let’s take the much maligned sugar as an example.
Sugar intake guidelines (according to the World health organization) recommend “Less than 10% of total energy intake…. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits”.
So let’s throw a dart here and say we are aiming for anywhere between 25-50g (this will depend on your total calories/target calories, activity levels etc). That’s 6-12 teaspoons.
When you start reading labels it doesn’t take long to figure out that you can easily surpass your daily sugar target in a single granola bar, bowl of cereal, flavored Greek yogurt, can of pop or tall glass of juice. Be especially vigilant when reading labels on packaged goods. These are where the sneaky sugar calories creep in.
Sugar is but one example. You could apply the same principles to other potential saboteurs such as fast food items, alcohol or other calorically-dense foods.
Personally defining your moderation involves taking the concept from abstract and vague to specific and conscious. The very fact that you are personally defining your boundaries gives you the autonomy and control. Putting things under your terms is a good recipe for empowering long-term change.
Moderation: Action Steps
Here is a checklist of things to do/think about when personally defining your moderation sweet spot.
1. Determine goals, food preferences and where you will kick yourself in the comfort zone: What are your body composition goals? If you are setting a more aggressive weight/body fat goal, you may have to scale back more. In terms of preferences, maybe you have certain foods that you are just not willing to give up right now. Whether it’s a Friday night pizza tradition or a weakness for dill pickle chips or martinis after work on Thursdays, be sure you are aware of the big picture of your week.
2. Track: Oftentimes we are unaware of what we are actually eating over the course of a day or week. Download a calorie tracking app such as “my fitness pal” or “Lose It” and/or use a food log journal. Note your total calories and macro-nutrient breakdown, vegetable intake, sugar consumption and take stock. This can give you a solid baseline of where you can scale back and by how much.
3. Look at total calories first and work backwards: If the goal is body composition, look at your calorie targets first, followed by your macronutrient intake (carbs, protein, fat). Ensure you are in a calorie deficit and that protein intake is adequate.
4. Where can you scale back?: What are you eating “in moderation” that you can moderate further? If your vice is Friday night pizza, what if you had 2 slices instead of 4? If it’s Thursday night cocktails after work, could you have 1 instead of 3? If you have an appetizer with it normally could you skip it? If you eat out 5 times per week could you scale it back to twice? Scaling back without eliminating your social life or throwing your routine off too much will fast track your results.
5. Know what’s in your favorite foods: Think about some of your favorite foods. Know how many calories and how much sugar they contain so that you can figure out a way to include them in your diet. Could you have less of what you might normally have? What is something else you could cut back on to keep these in your regular rotation?
6. Pick your spots: Moderation is about being selective. We live in an environment that sets us up for indulgences. Have an implementation intention: A specific plan of what you are going to eat and what you are NOT going to eat in any given situation. Ensure that what you are indulging in is something your TRULY enjoy. Eat slowly, intentionally and intuitively.
7. Search for root causes: Do you find yourself indulging under emotionally-charged situations? Are you a night snacker? An important part of the process of figuring out your own eating patterns is uncovering some of the triggers that lead to overeating. Be cognizant about situations that precede mindless eating. Find ways to navigate this.
Moderation – when practiced as intended – works very well over the long term.
Moderation is a matter of finding the balance that yields results but doesn’t leave you miserable. Moderation is about taking the fear out of eating; it’s about consciously eating healthfully and minimizing (but not avoiding) indulgences. Rather than striving for perfection, aim to scale back, pick your spots and practice self-scrutiny with kindness.