What Does Eating in ‘Moderation’ Actually Mean?

by | May 10, 2016
Photo by broterham

Photo by broterham

Moderation might be the most overused word in the entire nutrition universe.

I know, I know. You like the idea of not restricting yourself and being able to eat anything you want so long as it’s not “too much.”

It sounds healthy. Balanced. Sane.

You might have even mistaken some of my willpower bashing here at Summer Tomato as an endorsement of moderation. Something like, “Use a little willpower, but not too much.”

It sounds lovely. If only it actually helped you achieve your goals.

The problem with moderation is that it’s a fantasy, not a strategy.

Let’s say, for example, that I am Italian and really love pasta. This is very far from the truth, but bear with me.

Currently I eat pasta every day, but am about 30 lbs overweight and just got a warning from my doctor about rising blood pressure and triglycerides.

My doctor recommends cutting back on pasta, but I tell her there’s no way I could ever give it up. It’s part of my heritage and I can’t be happy without it.

She says that’s fine, but to try to eat it in moderation.

I go home, take a deep breath, and force myself to make a pot of brown rice for dinner tonight. I am able to skip pasta a couple of nights this week and feel pretty good about myself.

I do it again next week, but the following week my kids are in a school play and rice takes too long so it’s back to pasta.

In 6 months I go back to my doctor hanging my head, another 4 lbs heavier.

Your brain has no idea how to picture what moderation means, so has trouble acting on it. Without clear boundaries, old habits will always win.

Behavioral research has repeatedly shown that the more specific an action is, the more likely you are to actually do it. And it’s hard to get any less specific than “moderation.”

Another problem is that moderation is a relative term. Specifically we relate what is moderate to our unconscious ideas of “normal.”

That might be fine if we lived in a time of strong cultural norms that dictated the how, when, what and why of proper eating. Before the industrialization of agriculture this was how most cultures maintained a healthy population.

But most of what we now consider normal is hazardously dangerous.

Americans currently eat 17x the amount of sugar we did in 1822. Is cutting back to 10x the 1822 amount of sugar “moderate?”

Most people would accuse you of being a low-carb psycho if you tried that, but in reality it is still far more than you need or is probably healthy.

The exact opposite is true of vegetables and exercise. We are at such abysmally low amounts that a small increase can seem impressive, but still fall short of the levels needed for optimal health.

In this case moderation would leave you content with not doing enough.

I’m not trying to say that incremental improvements aren’t valuable. They are, and I always recommend making changes gradually so you don’t burn out.

But you should focus your energy on specific actions (habits), rather than trying to reach a vague and arbitrary ideal.

When you want to develop a healthier habit, don’t just try to cut back a little or do a little more. Identify the exact time and place the behavior occurs, and consciously construct a way to guide yourself toward the new action.

If you want to do less of something find an alternative.

If you want to do more of something identify a strong trigger and remove barriers to action.

If something works do more of it.

If it doesn’t work adjust your strategy.

Changing behavior isn’t easy, but positive change rarely happens on a whim.

What does moderation mean to you?

Originally published April 15, 2015.

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45 Responses to “What Does Eating in ‘Moderation’ Actually Mean?”

  1. Sofia says:

    I disagree. I would never be able to lose weight if I had to give up pasta or bread. Instead I simply eat less of both of those things, and save it for when it’s really worth it. Sourdough bread from Tartine? Totally worth it. Mushy bread from a random sandwich place. Not worth it.

    I’ve been steadily losing weight for several months now and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. If I want bread or pasta I’ll have it. But by this point I’m used to having much less of both those things so I don’t even have cravings for them.

    It did take a bit of willpower for me to get to this point (my body had to get adjusted to me eating differently and to smaller portions) but now I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself of anything. I’m having everything I want, just in moderation.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Never in a zillion years would I recommend completely giving up a food you love. My point here is that you need to be specific instead of vague in “how” to do it.

      It sounds like you used a strategy of reframing the value of certain types of foods you eat. You make an explicit decision to eat high quality bread, but not low quality bread. I use the exact same strategy, but I don’t call it moderation because it doesn’t make the appropriate distinction.

      Moderation infers quantity, not quality. I don’t eat low quality bread in moderation, I don’t eat it at all. And I eat excellent bread when I feel like it. I think the difference is important, because just saying “moderation” doesn’t give someone enough information to start making better choices.

      • Wendy Laubach says:

        Exactly! The way I frame it is a calorie budget, but I get to the same place: if the budget is tight and something has to give, it may be that many days are bread-free. If I do make room for bread, it sure isn’t going to be useless Wonder Bread! It’s going to be first-rate delicious French peasant bread. For me, the calorie budget is the way I keep it specific. Within the budget, I can be as flexible as I like. At the same time, everything I eat now is my absolute favorite: no automatic munching on anything mediocre.

        Gradually I’m learning new habits about appropriate sizes of servings and appropriate intervals for treats like bread or dessert, not to mention ceasing to eat before I’m stuffed full. Ultimately I shouldn’t have to count calories; I’ll have developed new and reliable rules of thumb. Down 66 lbs. so far.

  2. I agree that moderation is not the right word to use. I guess balance is a much better better word despite it also being too vague. I feel that with moderation you don’t get to see the whole picture but with balance you might see that pasta every day is not balancing against your other food choices.

    Other than that I completely get your point!

  3. NatalieInCA says:

    Totally agree on your post, but not on your comment above. Moderation does not work for me for things that I love. I need to set limits, quantify. Quality matters, yes, but quantity too. Take wine for instance, I only buy good ones, and I have one glass at dinner, one and only one (except on special occasions!).

  4. Donna says:

    I am reading a new book, Goddesses Never Age by Dr. Christine Northrup, and she makes the distinction between “moderators” and “abstainers.” Moderators can enjoy a few bites of a treat or favorite food and then stop when full. Abstainers know that even a few bites of their favorite food may trigger a full on path to overeating. She advocates making those special foods a ritual – thus setting specific conditions as you advocate. For example, I LOVE chai tea lattes, but I have them only on Tuesday and Thursdays after my yoga class and usually with a friend. THis is my ritual – and helps me to enjoy this special treat and still stay on track for health and fitness.

    Love your blog and your logical approach!

    • Sherie says:

      Oh dear, I’m the abstainer. One small bite can lead to whole episode of binge eating and I hate it! 🙁

      • Wendy Laubach says:

        Learning to stop on one’s own is the key to so many things! I’ve been known to drink to excess, and I know that some people reach the point where it’s got to be AA and total abstinence. I would regret that extremely. It’s important to me to learn how to drink moderately and be my own locus of control. (Of course, any habit that affects inhibitions is especially tricky in this respect.) In terms of food that I formerly would have binged on, I’ve had to learn by experience that I can still enjoy it if I eat a small amount and stop on my own initiative. Then, that feeling that I stopped on my own becomes its own reward, because I have escaped the icky old feeling of being out of control–without denying myself the treat I wanted.

    • That’s why I moderate dessert, but obtain from tortilla chips.

    • Suelight says:

      I love your idea of ritual! It causes certain food items to become a special event. Somehow it just seems to make limiting them easier. Amazing what a simple change of perspective can do. I will definitely use this type of thinking in the future.

  5. Alina says:

    Ok so quantity. We could quantify our moderation? That sounds ok. Please, don’t take away all of my cookies so fast! 🙂

  6. Too many people speak of moderation as if it is an easy, almost mindless effort. Most of my clients tell me otherwise.

    Eating in moderation requires effective self regulation and capacity to determine when you are hungry, and how much is enough–subtle cues that are easily steamrolled by more potent stress response hormones. In fact, eating in moderation is much more like tacking down a narrow channel in a sail boat, requiring attention and skill, especially with an incredibly abundant and often adulterated food supply.

    I often speak of eating a good enough balance of food or eating close to the earth, but more critically every person deserves to figure out an approach to food that works for them, one flexible enough to meet their needs over time and in different situations.

  7. Annie says:

    The moderator vs abstainer distinction seems important to me. If I tell myself I can have good quality bread whenever I want it, that doesn’t help me make healthier choices because I always want it. And when I have a little, I want more. It just all seems like a slippery slope. If I tell myself, I don’t eat bread, weirdly, I stop wanting/ thinking about it. I know of course that I will eventually eat a piece of bread– but it has to seem like an extremely rare, not at all typical occurance. It seems like advising us to only eat certain foods when we truly feel like it, and when it’s of good quality is another way of asking us to practice moderation. I think this is a lot harder for some people than others.

  8. Simone says:

    Hi Darya,

    first of all thanks for all the great work!
    That’s definitely it.
    Skinny people who never had any weight problems tend to say something along the lines “I eat anything, just in moderation.” Which isn’t wrong for them, it just doesn’t help me to get there.
    It’s like grammar in a foreign language. If I tell you I’m just using the gender in German how it feels right, I’m not lying. But it still doesn’t help you to know weather “I feel” the moon is female, male or even neutral 🙂
    You need many rules and even more exceptions to the rules I’ve never learned (but heard of from people learning German).
    Maybe one day you can forget about the rules also and get to the “right” feeling. But that’s many years of hard work.
    Same here, still trying to get the basics 🙂

  9. andrenna says:

    I completely agree. Moderation is a dream, not a reality. I have tried moderation so many times, and failed so many times. I recently read a post by James Clear where he argues for “Bright Line Rules” to help in achieving your goals. For example “I will only have 2 drinks.” And that’s your bright line rule to adhere to no matter what. I don’t know it works, but it’s another strategy.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Drinks are a tough one, since they inhibit your frontal lobes. But in general yes, bright lines work because they take the decision making process out of the heat of the moment.

  10. Catharine says:

    I agree about the importance of having a strategy, but I don’t agree about “moderation” itself. I don’t think that moderation is just a fantasy – I think it’s a goal, to which one can work by developing a strategy that works for them.

    That being said, I also agree completely that “moderation” itelf is to a large extent a culturally defined concept. I live in France, where the obesity rate is still much lower than that of the US, and while “eating in moderation” doesn’t explain that completely, it does explain how crucial a gastronomic culture is in defining “normal” quantities, times, and places to eat, as well as expectations of quality. Of course, the French gastronomic culture isn’t the same as the Japanese gastronomic culture, where as far as I understand (having never been to Japan), sugar consumption is traditionally extremely low, if not nonexistent. So what people traditionally eat and how much in these different countries is obviously different, but they both have a strong culture surrounding food that, in its own way, provides an unconscious strategy to get to “moderation”.

    Thank you, Darya, for your insights!

  11. Jane Pendry says:

    Thanks for this article which is a very helpful reminder of the difficulty in putting change down to willpower.

    I’m currently 2 weeks into cutting out sugar. I’ve battled with the idea of “moderating” my intake for years and I gradually realised that it was impossible because the strong neural pathways I had created over the years telling me that chocolate etc was the way to make me feel better. I’d get through a day without having sugar but then as soon as a small challenge occurred I’d eat chocolate and all the justifications for doing so would flow. It’s not that I desperately need to loose weight etc but I didn’t like feeling unable to moderate myself. But as you have said, my brain didn’t know what moderate meant. I wanted to experiment with the idea of 2 months without it completely and then perhaps I can re-introduce with moderation. Lots of people have said that this seems quite drastic but for those people moderation is natural, for me it is not, I have to actively train my brain to understand moderation. Your article is another helpful re-framing of this concept. Many thanks for this and all your writing.

  12. Kerstin says:

    I really appreciate this post. I love the idea of moderation as it implies I can still have my cake as long as I have less of it. In reality for those of us who are severely overweight or obese this rarely works though as the foods that we need to moderate are usually the triggers that lead to overeating. On the other hand, setting clear boundaries and ‘rules’ around quality and quantity can be tricky, too, because we hate to feel deprived. I have a lot of weight to loose and am still figuring out what works best for me, so your post is very timely and giving me some clarity for the road ahead. Thank you!

  13. maria says:

    Totally unrelated but while cooking I have observed many recipes ask for bacon( particularly cooks illustrated). Is there an alternative to using bacon to make soups and beans?

  14. Phoenix says:

    Daria, THANK YOU!

    “Everything in moderation” has been my personal bugaboo for quite some time. It’s like the biggest weasel phrase in the entire fitness/health-o-sphere – and it always seems to come from someone who has no idea what it’s like to struggle with overeating, binge behaviour and other disordered eating patterns.

    It seems like someone who’s always had an ordered eating mindset just can’t fathom how their idea of “moderation” can be completely incompatible with someone who has, or had, a disordered eating mindset. I like how one of my Fitocracy friends put it – “I hear some people moan about how they ‘binged’ on five cookies and I’m just like, ‘five cookies is a binge for you? Ha, lightweights.'”

    For some of us, this mythical “moderation” just. doesn’t. exist. As you point out, clear boundaries and specific actions are the way to go.

    I know at least half a dozen folk who have decided that calorie/macro tracking is what it takes for them to reach their healthstyle goals. (Two of them are physique competitors, one is an amateur powerlifter with a history of carb binging, and the rest are just all-around awesome.) While it’s not my thing, you have to admit that you can’t get much more specific than that!

  15. kathy says:

    You did it again Darya! Spoke directly to me! You make so much sense! THANK YOU!

  16. Linda Craig says:

    Hi Dayra,

    I met you watching Leo’s show yesterday. I had to look up what neuroscience is. Good for you!

    Very good article. Moderation is a one word short cut for setting yourself up to fail!

    I learned: “focus your energy on specific actions (habits), rather than trying to reach a vague and arbitrary ideal.”

    Did not realize the brain needs specifics.

    Very strong statement: “If you want to do more of something identify a strong trigger and remove barriers to action.”

    Could you please speak a bit more on identifying a strong trigger & remove barriers to action please. Perhaps you have written on this before & could direct me.

    So glad I found you. Your live shots were great!

    Take care

  17. Sam says:

    To me moderation and balance are a way to think about how you eat. But it is not an action. Its like the difference between a big over arching goal (like “eat healthy” or “have energy”) and a SMART goal that actually describes what it is you are going to DO. Yeah I can say that I want to eat balanced meals – but what does that mean? I’d have to define it to have a goal that I can act on.

  18. I guess I’ve never thought about moderation because it’s such a vague word. Diet seem to veer from vague to extreme, without anything in the middle.

    So I would take it to mean to pay attention to what you’re eating. Things like don’t have pizza twice a week, or don’t have desert every day. And some of it is not letting the bad food into the house in the first place. I limit any desert I have to once a week. I’ve also been reading the labels for sugar content. I was amazed that a boxed pancake product I have only has 5 grams of sugar, but the convenience version 15 grams!

  19. Marianela says:

    I totally agree. Eating in moderation is a commonly heard mantra. This takes a lot of determination and willpower. Thank you for sharing =)

  20. Alice says:

    I totally agree. I hate it when celebrities give interviews about their weight loss and they say “I enjoy dessert in moderation – I would never deprive myself.” Diet Me reads that and thinks “I can eat chocolate every day!” with no idea of what moderation actually is. And then gets frustrated when the ‘diet’ doesn’t work. For me the key is having an alternative – an apple or a cup of tea to satisfy a sweet craving rather than giving in and going to the pantry for chocolate (which will be inevitably be followed by more trips because I can’t recognize the point of “moderation” or satisfaction.)

  21. Kelly says:

    Hello,
    I’m new to the site and am anxiously awaiting your book I ordered. With the exception of the last 6 years, I had been over weight since I was in grade school. To date, I’ve lost a total of 102 lbs. You might think my weight problem is “over” but that is the farthest from the truth. I’m 52 and recently competed in a figure competition. I have been using “flexible dieting” and counting macros, quite successfully for the last year. Since the competition, I’ve fallen back into old habits and have gained 12 pounds in 3 weeks. “Moderation” is lost to me right now and even before the competition I struggled with this concept and food choices. Flexible dieting has allowed me to enjoy favorite foods, but only if I have the macros in my “bank” that day. While it has helped me discover the idea of “moderation”, it’s only successful if you can implement it consistently. I’m trying to get back to a flexible dieting approach, but I’m struggling with snacking and avoiding what I have identified as my “trigger foods”. An example is milk chocolate is a trigger food, but dark chocolate (over 70% cocoa for me) doesn’t have the same binge initiating effect. Once I start snacking, I can’t seem to stop until I’m stuffed and obviously I can’t track handfuls of Lucky Charms in My Fitness Pal application. Someday I would love to be an “intuitive” eater and enjoy cookies, ice cream and donuts in moderation, but I’m seriously not sure that’s possible. I’m hoping your book will help guide me back towards achieving more balance in my mindset and diet. While I’m in the habit of weighing myself daily, I don’t want to weigh my food and scan food bar codes with my smart phone for the rest of my life. I’m just struggling with finding more of a balance between counting macros and being on point v.s. all out binge where I end up feeling bloated, sick and very unhappy with my behavior. I really enjoy reading the comments of other readers.

  22. angela@spinchtiger says:

    I just wrote something about how I maintain my weight even though I attend a lot of food events as a food blogger. I eat everything with intention. I love food. Moderate is a vague word, so I use intention. I don’t believe everything in moderation, because we’ve lost the battle of normal, healthy portions, etc. And, there is no way I’m eating transfats, high fructose syrup in moderation. However, this is a great topic for on-going discussion. I find in general food bloggers who love good food don’t have much of a weight problem, but some of my friends who are heavy don’t cook, don’t have a real love of good food, thus, not very discriminating.

  23. JT says:

    Great post, Darya. It’s hard for someone to argue for moderation in lieu of goals; actionable and specific steps are required. As a physical therapy student, I am learning about how specificity with modalities exercise and parameters of stretches impacts the outcomes of my patients.

    Like you said, moderation is a relativistic term. Your post helped me realize that the opposite of moderation may not be extremity, but rather specificity.

    Thank you for always creating new and valuable content.

  24. Sarah says:

    I love how your blog perfectly mixes science and a love of food and wellness together. I agree that the term moderation is very overused and under-regulated. Personally, I like to have one meal off a week where I can really indulge whatever cravings I’m having and enjoy what I want without considering weight or health. Knowing I have this helps me to stay in line for the rest of the week. I guess you could call this moderation, but I would say it’s much more strict that most people’s definitions of moderation. Great post Darya!

  25. Brian Hahn says:

    Agreed, I hate the word “moderation” because it basically gives me no guidance. One could set an arbitrary amount and label it moderate.

  26. Fred says:

    Bright line + moderation may be the solution?

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