Thursday, August 22, 2013

The "Everything in Moderation" Conundrum

I recently came across a post criticizing the often-repeated dietary and weight loss advice to eat “everything in moderation” and wanted to share my viewpoint on this topic. While I do agree that as a stand-alone, this recommendation is very fuzzy, it is not completely without meaning and value, and I don’t believe that the idea of moderation with eating should be thrown out the window. There is no doubt that moderation and balance with food is a critical part of long-term success with healthy eating and weight control; however, I think the “everything in moderation” mantra applies more to a healthy way of life than to the means in which we get there. To help create more understanding about what is meant by “everything in moderation” and to specify how and when this advice applies, I’ve drafted the following thoughts:
  • Undoubtedly, ill-defined dietary recommendations are hard to apply in real life, and I do believe that “everything in moderation” is one of “those” amorphous blobs of nutrition wisdom. Still, the principles behind “everything in moderation” are sound and include:
    • By avoiding excesses of any food, you create balance
    • Less-healthy foods can be eaten, but need to be moderated
    • If you completely avoid vast food groupings, certain foods you crave, or specific nutrients, there is bound to be a nasty relapse in which you end up overeating the foods you have been depriving yourself of 
  • At least in my practice, “Everything in moderation” doesn’t actually include everything. I don’t believe that a moderate intake of regular soda, junk processed foods, deep-fried & breaded foods, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, or even high-quality highly-decadent treats, to name a few, should be the norm. These foods should be rarities. For this reason, I propose that the advice mantra, “most things in moderation,” be used to provide better clarity.
  • In what instances is “most things in moderation” most likely to be unsuccessful? In my experience, people do better obtaining their health and weight loss goals when there is a good degree of structure. “Most things in moderation” may not work for people actively trying to reclaim their health, turn their dietary behaviors around, and lose weight. Some short-term avoidance of trigger foods may be necessary until better control is gained. Additionally, it is important to reset your taste preferences from an overabundance of salt, sugar, and fat back to unadulterated whole foods, and this is often best accomplished by steering clear of the old favorites for awhile. More stringent, less moderate dietary rules also can help overhaul a person’s eating behaviors more effectively, thereby reprogramming them to healthier behaviors.
  • When does a diet with “most things in moderation” work then? You are wrong if you think maintaining a moderate eating life boils down to having an amazing willpower or is contingent on luck. No doubt about it, being able to eat in moderation is the result of a lot of time, hard work, and lifestyle change. Clients and people I know (including myself) who have success with “moderation” have worked their butts off to get to the point in which this adage can be applied. Indeed, if you haven’t done the prep work, trying to eat in moderation will probably not end well. But if you have done the prep work, you will already:
    • Have reset your taste preferences to prefer quality, whole foods with less sugar, salt, and fat.
    • Have developed an understanding of the different reasons why you eat (true hunger, stress, pure pleasure?) and will be mindful of them.
    • Know which foods are ok in moderation and which fall into the “rarity” category.
    • Have learned the importance of planning your food intake versus haphazardly floating through the day letting food happen to you.
    • Have a conscious awareness of the caloric value of your portions.
    • Have defined for your individual needs what “moderate” actually means—once a week, once a day, every other month—and will be able to use good old common sense to determine what works best for you.
With these (and other) conditions in place, eating balanced and moderately does happen.
  • Bottom line: the advice to eat “most things in moderation” should be used along with other guidance, not as a stand-alone. In truth, “most things in moderation” isn’t best utilized as a weight loss strategy, but is what happens after you put in the significant time and effort to truly change your lifestyle and regain control of a healthy way to eat.

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