Is “Everything in Moderation” Terrible Advice?

By Teresa Wagner, RD, LD
March 9, 2021

moderation-muffins.jpgThe key to good health is everything in moderation… or at least that’s what we’re told. We’ve all seen ads that claim “You can lose 30 pounds in 30 days and still eat bread, chocolate and wine!” Meaning if you can just moderate (limit) yourself, you can lose weight AND eat and drink your goodies too. But what if that advice is wrong for most people?

Turns out it IS wrong for half the people out there. Gretchen Rubin shared this idea on the Dishing Up Nutrition episode Mastering Our Habits. Rubin said that there are two types of people in the world: moderators and abstainers … and it’s helpful to know which type you are. While moderation is held up as the ideal, it’s really not possible for many people. For those people, completely abstaining and cutting out chocolate (as an example) would be the answer. It’s often much more freeing than trying to constantly control and limit your daily intake of the chocolate.

Backing up, one reason the idea of moderation has been such popular advice is because many people giving the advice (dietitians, nutritionists, personal trainers, and other healthcare professionals) are natural moderators. Meaning they can have “just one” easily because their brains are just wired a bit differently. Having a chocolate chip cookie or a cupcake doesn’t lead them to eat the entire bag or box. Leading to more cravings for sugar and processed foods that can last for days, sometimes months. Then months turn into years of yo-yo dieting filled with mental tug of wars, guilt and shame … you get the idea. (I am not one of those dietitians. I am just fine around sweets until I have the first bite. I don’t care much for candy but something rich like a chocolate croissant, that’s trouble for me!)

How This Approach Can Be Harmful

The idea of moderation in everything is well-meaning advice and it works for some people. However, if it DOESN’T work for you, the implication is that it’s YOUR fault. If you’d just practice some self-discipline, you’d be thin too. Keep practicing and you’ll develop will-power. This is hurtful and unhelpful advice - setting most up for failure. If you are an abstainer, or rather an all-or-nothing person by nature, you probably can’t keep it to just one. As an extreme example, it’s like saying to an alcoholic that one glass of wine is fine.

So, no, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. As you would expect this is not popular or welcome advice. If we deny ourselves our cravings, it’s considered punishment or too restrictive. Rubin, who is an abstainer, cited friends and family telling her she was “too rigid” in her eating rules. Perhaps you’ve experienced this from your network as well.

Even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) – the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals – warns about the negative effect of excluding food groups or labeling foods as “bad” saying that it can lead to a poor relationship with food, overeating, or even eating disorders. Many dietitians are still trained in “everything in moderation,” calories in/calories out, and the laughable “balance what you eat with what you do” brought to you by Coca-Cola. (Because we all have time for a four-hour walk after we eat a Big Mac Combo meal.)

If Moderation Is Difficult, You May Be An Abstainer

At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we try to stop this way of thinking by teaching that QUALITY of the food we eat is the most important aspect of good health. And with good health comes weight management. “Diets” in general have low success rates, to the tune of 10%. (This recent Dishing Up Nutrition episode explained why that is.) Research found that the most successful diets are those that limit options and focus on quality, versus those that focus on portion control and moderation. (Learn much more about this in our Nutrition 4 Weight Loss series.)

Why? In short because food communicates with your brain. When we have sugary food and drinks, the reward center in the brain lights up making it incredibly hard to stop eating. It’s not your lack of willpower, it’s science working against you. Those foods are designed so you can’t “just stop at one” because of that reward center in your brain. Leading you to eat more, buy more, eat more, buy more … and the cycle continues.

Think about it like this, when is the last time you said, “At parties, when green beans are on the table, I just can’t stop snacking on them” or “At night, when my family is in bed, I sneak into the kitchen and eat green beans straight out of the bag, I don’t even need to warm them up”? My guess is those scenarios have never happened to you. But what if we swapped green beans for sugary cereals, chips, or bite-sized candy bars? The green beans were designed by nature and the others were engineered by scientists in a lab to hijack your brain.

Are You An Abstainer Or A Moderator?

So how can this help you? Answer these three questions to determine which approach may work better for you:

  • Have you ever found yourself at the bottom of a bag of popcorn (or cookies, chips, etc.) feeling sick but still unable to stop?
  • Have you ever felt panicky about the idea of never having chocolate ice cream again when committing to a diet?
  • Have you ever had a bar of chocolate in the cabinet designed for one piece a day, only to think about it constantly and it’s gone within a day simply to get it off your mind?

If you answered yes to two of the three, the answer is abstinence. If not, then moderation works for you. Again, for many abstinence is freedom and making this switch in the brain is extremely helpful and rewarding.

That said, I’m well aware that this is easier said than done. With that in mind, my next blog post will be sharing step two in the moderation and abstinence approach. Sign up for our free newsletter to learn if abstinence is required in all those irresistibly appealing foods or are there exceptions? Is this a realistic and attainable idea in our modern world and how can this approach work for you? Along with strategies for success in tricky situations and supplements that may help. Stay tuned and see ya next month!

Resources

  1. Eric W Manheimner et al., “Paleolithic Nutrition for Metabolism Syndrome: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 102, no. 4 (October 2015): 92-32 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4588744
  2. Brittanie Chester et al., “The Effects of Popular Diets on Type 2 Diabetes Management,” Diabetes Metabolism Research and Reviews (May 23, 2019) www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31121637

About the author

Teresa is a licensed dietitian at Nutritional Weight & Wellness. As a mother of three children and avid runner, Teresa knows that good nutrition is essential for energy and well-being. She also sees first-hand the impact food choices have on her children’s behavior, moods and happiness. Teresa is a registered and licensed dietitian through the Minnesota Board of Nutrition and Dietetics. She received her B.S. in dietetics from the University of Wisconsin-Stout and completed her dietetic internship at Indiana University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. She worked as a clinical dietitian for the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.

View all posts by Teresa Wagner, RD, LD

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