The saying “eat everything in moderation” is among the most common diet advice, however, it’s not as straightforward as it may seem. “To me, moderation means that no foods are off limits,” says Mia Syn, RD. All foods can fit in a healthy diet, but that doesn’t mean they all fit all the time. Syn says moderation applies to “sometimes” foods like those high in added sugar, sodium, or saturated fat. “Embracing everything in moderation and not depriving yourself of foods you enjoy will leave you feeling physically and psychologically nourished,” she says.
That said, not all experts use the term. In fact, some try to avoid it completely. “There’s no real definition of the word, and it can’t be applied on a broad scale,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RD, founder and owner of Nutrition Starring You. For instance, using the mantra for a weight-loss goal is one thing, but if you have a medical condition (and perhaps have gotten advice from your doctor to lose weight), then you may not be able to moderate at all. “If your definition is to have one dessert a day, but you have Type 2 diabetes and doing so negatively affects your blood sugar, it’s not moderate — it’s damaging,” says Harris-Pincus.
More likely, calling something moderate is a psychological tactic to make you feel better about your choices. “We really only use that word when we’re talking about foods we aim to have less of, like cake, alcohol or fried foods,” adds Harris-Pincus. Research backs this up: A study published in Appetite found people called a choice moderate to “justify their current or desired consumption.” In other words, it was dubbed “moderate” when someone wanted to eat more of it.
Here, a look at how to make the everything in moderation mindset work for you, not against you:
WHY EVERYTHING “IN MODERATION” CAN HELP WEIGHT LOSS
“Moderation can prevent burnout if used correctly,” says Syn. For example, it can help you prevent the common mistake of eliminating (or drastically reducing) an entire macronutrient group (i.e., carbs). “Moderation comes into play by serving as a guide for what proportion of each nutrient we should have in our diet. All nutrients are essential, and moderation can help determine the range most suited for your weight goals,” she adds.
What’s more, what you should and shouldn’t be eating (and the guilt associated with that), can be stressful for some people. “Stress is a major factor that can make weight loss more difficult,” notes Syn. If you often feel guilty for eating certain foods, you can give it the cloak of “everything in moderation” to help you gain perspective on your choices — and prevent subsequent overeating.
THE TRICK TO EATING IN MODERATION FOR WEIGHT LOSS
Start by asking yourself what moderation means to you, says Syn. Is it eating a cookie once a day or once a week? Having an objective measure can help you figure out what the term signifies for you.
“What’s most often missing from the moderation piece is an understanding of what you’re eating,” adds Harris-Pincus. That awareness is key: Research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands found those who lacked awareness about their eating habits said they ate far more moderately than was actually true. Try keeping a food journal, which only takes 15 minutes a day or less — not only will it help you be more mindful of what you’re eating, but research shows it helps with weight loss and maintenance.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Creating a moderation framework that is too difficult for you to maintain over a lifetime could lead to unhealthy binge behaviors when you finally give yourself ‘permission’ to eat the foods you so tightly ‘moderate,’” says Syn. And that’s exactly what you want to avoid in the first place by eating in moderation.
Instead, focus on consuming more quality, nutrient-dense calories, says Harris-Pincus. Eating a diet rich in lean proteins and fiber-packed veggies will help keep you full and satisfied. “When you’re not famished, you can be more in control with food choices,” says Harris-Pincus. Through that, you can cultivate awareness and make conscious choices about how often and when to include foods (like ice cream, fries and burgers) that you’d otherwise justify with a moderation label.