What’s Wrong with Moderation?

This post is going to be short-ish because it’s late in the day and I don’t want to be up until all hours writing here. Though I was extolling the virtues of being forced to write everyday for National Blog Posting Month earlier in the week, right about now I am wondering what on earth possessed me to sign up!

I had an article published over at MindBodyGreen today. It’s called “Is It Time To Stop Worrying About Sugar”. It’s a slight reworking of this recent post about homemade oreos and sugar.

I’ve written about eating sugar (and all things, really) in moderation quite a bit lately. That’s because I personally feel very comfortable with moderation these days: it is an eating strategy that works very well for my body and my mind. But I have noticed that the mention of moderation seems to send some folks into a rage. I am not at all joking: I’ve been called “irresponsible” and many other not-so-nice names for saying that I don’t believe you have to avoid sugar/gluten/carbs/you name it (or follow an extreme diet) to be healthy.

Here’s the thing: there are plenty of people out in the world telling us that everything we want to eat is going to harm us…I don’t need or want to be one of them. Why? Because there’s an awful lot of orthorexia out there already and I have no interest in contributing to it! I feel strongly that stressing out over everything you put in your mouth in the interest of your health is, in fact, antagonistic to health. Also, I am simply not onboard with restricting foods for arbitrary reasons…I believe we should all strive to eat as wide a variety of foods as possible.

So, I have a few questions for you, my readers. What does moderation mean to you? Does the concept of moderation resonate with you or make you upset? If it upsets you, why is that? What’s wrong with moderation? I would really love to hear any your thoughts on this topic.

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31 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Moderation?”

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  2. I’m one for whom the “moderation” mantra rings false — but i see it very frequently on cancer and health support boards. People are comforted by it. It’s easy and seems so reasonable it can’t be wrong.

    Do you want moderate health? or extreme health? If you’re fighting cancer, or diabetes, or heart disease, or some immune disorder….do you want to fight moderately?
    I can tell you, in a cancer fight…..cancer simply adores moderation.

    We’re not a dozen different species….we’re only one — homo sapiens. And we’re 99.5% identical.
    The biological issues really do have a right and a wrong way of assisting the body. You can do it the wrong way….and the body will survive…..but, it won’t thrive.

    Understanding what it takes to allow the body to thrive…..and acknowledging the forces that have, and continue to hamper that understanding……and making dietary and lifestyle decisions to honor the body more…..with less “moderation”…..are smart choices, imo…..


    • Ron,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Can you provide scientific evidence for moderation contributing to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, immune disorders etc?
      I am not really sure I understand what you are trying to say.

  3. I love the idea of moderation. Although the only way it translates in my life is in variety. I have major restrictions because of food allergies. I look at all the variety that is left to me as a blessing.

  4. I enjoy a piece of cake here and there, I love ice cream, I’ve been making an Apple Crisp almost weekly for a month now, and love toast in the morning.

    Do I eat like this every day? Not at all. Some days are better, some are not. I care about what I put in my body, but I’m never militant about it, nor do I shake in fear at the sight of a potato or a slice of bread. I love good, healthy food, I avoid processed stuff, rarely eat anything fried, stay away from commodity meats and don’t consume a lot of dairy because it bothers my stomach. I prefer to avoid wheat for the same reason, but I still love good toast and coffee. The word ‘Never’ rarely leaves my mouth when it comes to food. I’m healthy, happy, at a good weight for my height and body type and as I face down my 50th birthday, people still guess I am at least 10-15 years younger. I like to take the mindful eating approach; I listen to what my body tells me, and what I feel like eating. I eat slowly, savoring the taste and textures, and tend to stop when I’m about 80% full. This is what works for me.

  5. Excellent conversation topic. I’m a big fan of everything in moderation, including moderation. : ) But, I do passionately agree that hard and fast rules around food and food groups do not work for everyone, or probably most people unless they are self-imposing because they feel a given rule is right for them through a process of experience and education. This mindfulness comes from having a healthy body image and healthy relationship with food. It is perhaps a goal -or even might be considered a reward for the journey.

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  7. I’m all for moderation too. Completely avoiding a particular food can sometimes make you obsess about it- especially if you happen to really like that particular food. I suppose for me, moderation is all about not over-doing anything. And when it comes to food, it depends on what kind of diet you follow- even if you don’t follow one, what kind of exercise you do, and how you feel about the food you put in your body. It’s upto each person to decide their own level of moderation- or they can just refer to what nutritionists are saying, I suppose.

  8. Ahhhh Winnie you are a woman after my own heart regarding moderation. As are some of the commentators this blog has drawn. Hi my name is Juda and I live in Queensland Australia. Moderation? Mnnn? yeah such an evocative word especially when pleasure is involved. Having reached the ripening age of 60 I am sitting more happily in moderation’s arms than I ever was before. I have grown with a compulsive eating disorder that i now recognise as a binge eating disorder. And I do mean ‘grown’. I have learned so much fat psychology and ordinary psychology because of this state of being. Plus I was born with a fair dose of the resistance gene. Moderation in all things was a mantra in my growing years, from my parents. Resistance with a capital ‘R’ was my response. Self defeating in many ways but the determination to fly with my own wings was strong.

    I am wondering is it that, that is the issue. We hear Moderation in all things and because as children we don’t like being told what to do. Asked yes. Told? It’s on for young and old! Also, for me, it is part of the ‘one size fits all’ approach. One size doesn’t fit all or nearly all. It’s a matter of finding what works for you. Eating moderately and enjoying it one day, celebrating a life event with the most scrumptious and decadent meal the next. I am thinking that along with moderation, the word and the feeling of balance needs to be somehow incorporated. That’s how it is for me these days, enjoying health giving food, for its physical wellbeing as well as its more social/spiritual wellbeing. Knowing that if I eat/drink too much, I jeopardise that, contributes to making more mindful choices. Oscar Wilde said ‘All things in moderation including moderation.’ Which I think ties in with your comment Winnie, about Orthorexia. I think it’s the rules and guilt trips that we create when breaking them, that can lead to so much low self esteem and resulting illbeing.

  9. I also have to say that I think the concept of addiction to sugar is absurd. Sure, it stimulates pleasure centers in your brain. That does not correlate to a medical addiction. I have not heard of anyone getting arrested for selling their mom’s wedding ring to buy another candy bar. Your body may be used to lots of sugar, and you may like sugar. You will not die of withdrawal when you suddenly stop consuming sugar.

    If sugar addiction were truly as serious as meth addiction, consider this. Meth is not something you can just pick up at the local store. It generally is not that easy to come by. Sugar is everywhere that food is sold, which, at least in the US, is almost everywhere. If sugar were as addictive as meth, I think we would see EVERYONE who eats sugar dead by the age of 25 from morbid obesity. With meth, you have one or two tastes and you are hooked. With sugar, you have one or two tastes, and you may want more, but you won’t suddenly because a chronic addict.

  10. I get into a rage when people refuse the concept of moderation. I work at a chain of grocery stores that are throughout the US which attracts a lots of ‘orthodox’ thinking eaters. E.G. Carbs are evil, sugar is evil, anything not organic is evil, etc. People often come to me asking for a product that is carb free. I frankly just want to smack them. Carbs do not make you fat. They do not kill you. The numbers on the sides of food packages mean next to nothing. Do people really think that eating 2,000 calories a day of chocolate will leave their bodies, inside and out, in the same shape as eating 2000 calories of carrots. Most of the healthiest foods are grown, not pooped out of a machine. The numbers vary widely from apple to apple, even if it is the same kind! Do you really think your microwave dinner. I hate people who obsess over numbers.
    I get people who say, oh, I have to obsess over numbers because I have diabetes, hypothyroid, etc. No. No you don’t. Focusing on how much of the bad stuff you can sneak in is what is ruining you. If you just ate real whole food and got a healthy amount of nutrition from eating your vegetables, your body will function correctly!

    If you focus on cramming it with processed junk food and rely on fake numbers to tell you how much of it you will allow yourself, you are doomed to fail. I wish that Darwin would take over on these number OCDers.

  11. I love the idea of moderation, but I think that people need to determine exactly what moderation means for him-/herself. For some, that might be an 80/20 rule… eating healthy 80% of the time and enjoying appropriate amounts of treats 20%. Maybe a “3 bite” rule would work. For others, it might be limiting themselves to a single serving. Or choosing to think of treats as treats… not a snack to reach for 99% of the time. Whatever viewpoint of moderation one takes, I think it’s important to remember (a) that it’s not one size fits all, and (b) to avoid the “oh well, I blew it so I might as well go for it” mentality when we slip past moderation into indulgence.

  12. In theory the moderation plan sounds fantastic, in practice I feel it is flawed for multiple reasons. First, as many have noted the subjective nature of moderation makes the goal of maintaining a healthy lifestyle next to impossible for many if not most people. For most people this means eating a “moderate” amount of unhealthy items, but failing to include a moderate amount healthy items to the balance. I also feel that many of the items commonly consumed in our society are much closer to poison than food, and no amount of poison is good for a person. These include the highly processed “edible food like items” omnipresent in our society today as well as most animal products which are contaminated by poisons they are injected with and fed through polluted water and gmo crops, etc. This gets to a larger point, that is living a healthy lifestyle requires making that a priority in one’s life…to me for many, “everything in moderation” is an easy cop out when the reality is people lead busy lives and the easy choice is to eat what is seemingly most convenient, while I think it is more than unfair to label this lazy behavior, I think it is in the sense that through the “everything in moderation” principle poor eating becomes habitual. As a society we need to put a higher value on healthful eating, and perhaps less emphasis on the incessant activities that lead to wealth and status that make everyone feel they are too busy to prepare a wholesome meal. I could go on and on about the poor health consequences, but I think a more important, because it is less publicizes issue, is the larger external costs of our food habits. Chief among the are the enviornmental consequences of our food system – especially animal production…which is a leading cause of water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation to make way for feed crops and pasture land, over flowing land fills… And then, of course, there is the human rights issue of. We should all be more mindful of the working conditions in our country and globally and shop responsibly to try to encourage better practices. This is a lofty goal indeed, but we have to start somewhere. Last note, but closest to me heart, is that for many people eating good food- food rich in vitamins and minimally processed- are out of reach. The fact that we are discussing this issue means we have the ability to eat healthfully if we so choose. Many people do not, for lack of access or finances, have the means to do so. We should acknowledge our privilege and take advantage of the opportunity to eat food that is good for our bodies, the environment, and our fellow man…that should be our guiding principle…to me I suppose that is moderation. Eating in a way that minimizes harm to myself, the planet, and other people.

  13. I’m one of those people that gets agitated by the “everything in moderation” mantra. It’s so vague! My experience has been that people use that line to excuse offering my kids foods of minimal nutritional value (or eating it themselves) with the “it’s ok to have a treat now and then” comment, when in truth it isn’t “now and then”, but multiple times a day.

    My experience has also been that people most frequently use the “everything in moderation” phrase when eating (or offering to others) Frankenfoods – things that, as Paula Youmell mentioned, should never be put in our bodies – petroleum based food colorings, transfats, carcinogenic food additives, highly processed junk.

    If you are talking about going through the trouble of making your own homemade oreos, that’s a different story. But again, your definition of moderation might be very different from mine. I think it’s ok to eat things like that once or twice a week, others think daily indulgence is appropriate.

    Moderation is such a wishy washy term, and it is often coopted by corporate entities trying to convince the public that it is ok to eat the highly processed frankenfoods that they are shilling, rather than used as a way to suggest a well rounded diet that is healthy as can be while still thoroughly enjoyable.

  14. I always teach my clients and workshop member that Moderation IS the Key IF you are eating whole foods. There is no moderation for things nature never meant to be in our body. Just my thoughts! : )

  15. I think that moderation can work for people who fall within the category of typical eaters. There are, however, some people who have food addictions, to sugar for instance, and are not able to eat it in moderation. For those people, trying to eat in moderation can be an exercise in self-destruction. Personally, I choose not to eat cane sugar and feel much healthier for it. I do not stress out about what I do or don’t put in my mouth. On the contrary, I feel a great deal of freedom as a result of just not eating it at all. Moderation is great if it works for you, but it doesn’t work for everyone and that’s ok.

  16. I think that “moderation in all things” is a good mantra for everyone. Too much of anything…even good things…can become harmful. Sleep, for example. There is a point where enough is enough.
    For me, moderation means moderate portions at meals, moderate adherence to medical requirements (I’m diabetic but I do allow myself some dark chocolate once in a while and I do partake of my grandchildren’s birthday cakes.), moderate physical exertion each day…In other words, I do what I know is right for me to do, but I don’t obsess over anything. It would appear that you, too, are on that same path.

  17. I’m pro-moderation. I don’t like the idea of fanaticism in anything, especially food. In my experience, people can’t sustain certain diets that are highly restrictive, they become resentful or at the other end of the spectrum, they alienate people around them by making them feel ignorant or careless in their food choices. There are good reasons for some people to make restrictive choices in the diets however I don’t like some attitudes that come with their choice. We should try and not put one another down, food should bring people together not divide us. :)

  18. I must admit, I was surprised to hear that people find “moderation” so difficult and/or irritating advice. “Everything in moderation” is such a classic, it seems that it could hardly engender such fury, no?

    But when I think about it, dietary moderation requires work. And I’m not just talking about the effort of will power: putting down that second (or third or fourth) cookie. I’m talking about the effort of simply paying attention to what you are eating, and making judgments about your total diet each day.

    Simply saying, “I’m never going to eat chocolate again!” is easy, mentally speaking. You remove all chocolate from the house, chocolate while you’re out is verboten: there is no thinking involved. You never have to pay attention to your body, decide how much chocolate is enough for you on that particular day, remember that you had a square at lunch, etc.

    I think this is why fad diets are so popular: it’s pretty easy to remember that you can eat nothing but grapefruit & water all day long. But of course, these types of diets are not sustainable and as such always fail.

    Frankly, I think that until one becomes a mindful eater – that is, paying attention to what goes into your body and how it makes you feel – you can never really have an easy relationship with food. And mindful eating is the very definition of moderation, so maybe the key is to shift the conversation towards the goal of developing a healthy relationship with food, rather than using the “m” word, which seems to be such a trigger.

  19. Winnie, great discussion to begin and kudos for accepting the lightning-rod status that comes along with it.

    I’m a big believer in moderation — after a few decades of fighting my weight. Now, I generally eat everything I want to, but try to be mindful of portion size and what time I’m eating. I think an important corollary to eating-in-moderation is regular exercise. I combine cardio and, like you, do a mix of different types of weight work in the gym. I know that building muscle mass has positively affected my metabolism, and I like being strong.

    Last point: my habits changed for good a year or two before I became a mother. I feel a responsibility to model healthy eating and exercise habits for my daughter. Thanks again for initiating an important discussion.

  20. Winnie, great suggestion about a small piece of cheesecake except there are just 2 of us in our family and there would be a ton of it leftover…If I want a treat, I tend to go out and get one small frozen yogurt and that’s the end of it.

  21. Responding to Jenn here-

    That sounds to me like a purely psychological issue, and that you may have a tendency to binge due to restriction of foods you have deemed “forbidden” or “bad.” I used to be the same way. I “couldn’t” have certain foods (sweets) in the house or else I would eat them all. Trying to just have a little would not happen. Anyway, turns out I’ve had a mild restrictive eating disorder all my life, in part due to not eating enough calories on a regular basis. You might relate to this: http://180degreehealth.com/2013/11/restrictive-eating-disorder-spectrum/

    • I am a huge fan of Matt Stone’s blog and I enjoyed that post a lot. I come from a background of restrictive eating, as well (long ago), and when I learned how to eat enough to support my energy needs, my “eating problems” went away…just like magic. Except you and I both know there’s not magic involved…it’s just physiology!

  22. Nothing at all wrong with moderation. I’m still overweight after losing 30 pounds since March, so moderation means sticking to my diet in ways that allow me to enjoy eating but keeping the brakes on a bit. My goal is to lose a pound every week or two. It’s been slow but turtles finish too – and I haven’t gained the weight back. Holiday season and dinner party time means a bit of a challenge – but I can skip the pumpkin cheesecake this year and still have an occasional egg nog latte…

    • Can you have half a slice of the cheesecake but not the whole thing if the whole thing puts you over your daily calorie limit? Honest question…I personally can have, like, a bite or half of something. But it seems like some cannot do that? Trying to figure it out :)

  23. For me, moderation means occasionally enjoying things that might not be the best for me if doing so increases my quality of life. Does sugar make me feel bad in large amounts? Yes. But I still enjoyed a variety of fun-size candy bars on Halloween while Phil and I were passing them out to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. I felt kind of sick later that night, I didn’t sleep as well, and my face broke out a little the next day. Those things made me not want to eat handfuls of candy every day, but I still had a lot of fun on Halloween and that’s a tradition that I don’t want to change. The same goes for holidays, birthdays, etc. Obviously, moderation means different things for different people. I have stopped drinking alcohol completely because I finally realized that I can’t drink alcohol in moderation and enjoy myself. Some people have the same trouble with sweets as I have with alcohol and for them, moderation might not work in that particular area. It all comes down to learning more about ourselves and what works for us. Moderation is going to mean something different for all of us, but I think it can be a positive and healthy thing for each of us to practice in our own way.

  24. I think what gets people crazy about “moderation” is that it has a slightly different meaning for everyone–to me, eating sugar in moderation is having a small treat every night, but to someone else, it might mean once a week or even once a month. That fuzziness can be tough for people who are trying to eat better or lose weight or reform bad habits for the first time, which I think is why the cut-it-out-completely approach is so popular.

    I think if you’ve eaten really poorly for years and have no concept of what a healthful diet really is, cutting things out at first can be helpful in the sense of sort of jumpstarting the process. But eventually, you have to find a way (a moderate way!) to reintroduce some of those foods that might’ve gotten you into trouble in the first place, because obviously you like them a lot and never eating them again wouldn’t be very fun.

    Case in point: As an overweight teenager who loved pizza and grilled cheese, I decided the best way to lose weight and get healthier was to go vegan, since it would allow me to completely bypass those trouble foods. It worked for me–I knew being vegan meant I’d need to pay close attention to what I ate in order to get enough nutrients, so my diet started revolving around the stuff it SHOULD revolve around, like fruits and vegetables and whole grains and beans and nuts. I lost weight, which motivated me to start exercising and lose more weight. After a few years of this, though, I realized that I couldn’t not each grilled cheese or pizza or any of the other nonvegan foods I’d been missing, so I reintroduced dairy and eggs into my diet (I still don’t eat meat, but it’s for ethical reasons). But it was only after having that time away from those foods that allowed me to realize what consuming them in moderation really meant. Now, I naturally practice moderation, though I tend not to call it that. Instead, I just say I eat whatever I want–within reason–which is totally true!

  25. I find that when I eat when I want, what I want, I stop consuming when I am no longer hungry – that is how I define moderation. For me, at least, this eliminates food cravings and the Pavlovic? response that it’s 8 a.m., noon, or 5:20 in the evening – therefore I must eat, and all that is on my plate. Certainly it is not the way Mom raised me, or how society (schools and time-based wage-jobs regiment portions and natural behavior).

  26. My issue with advocating “moderation” its vagueness. What does moderation mean? How much? How often? For me personally, trying to eat with moderation doesn’t work – mentally it becomes an easy rationalization for me to just eat whatever / however much I want. I think one needs a lot of self control (or at least more than I have) to be able self-regulate enough to handle eating things with moderation and not overdo it. The only way for me to decrease my sugar consumption is to actively cut it out – a couple pieces of chocolate here and there will eventually evolve back into my old habits and I’ll wonder what happened, even when I started with the best of intentions. And then I just feel like a failure when everyone advocates moderation and I couldn’t do it, which just further discourages me from ever feeling like I could succeed at being healthy. I’m sure most everyone else is completely fine with it and I’m just in the minority.