Is “everything in moderation” a reasonable approach to your diet or just a slippery slope to excess? Nutrition Diva explains
This is the second in a two-part series on the subject of moderation—based on an online discussion that was kicked off by my episode a few weeks ago on fried fish and whether the nutritional benefits of the fish outweigh the deficits of fried foods. (Short answer: they really don’t but the occasional fish fry isn’t going to kill you.)
See also: Moderation in All Things, Part 1
Last week, I shared some of my own thoughts—as well as a number of comments from Nutrition Diva fans—on the value of allowing for a certain amount of dietary indiscretion. The general consensus was that striving for dietary perfection was not only unnecessary but perhaps even counter-productive. For most of us, an approach that allows for the occasional indulgence is more sustainable and sanity-preserving than a zero-tolerance policy. This week, however, I want to explore the other side of the coin.
Is Moderation All It’s Cracked Up To Be?
Frankly, I was a little surprised that more people didn’t question the merits of moderation. After all, how reliable is our concept of what’s “moderate”? Could it be a slippery slope? Where exactly is the line between moderate and excessive?
As social animals, we are highly influenced by what others around us are doing. I know I’m much more likely to order dessert if someone else at the table orders it. And if you spend time with people who routinely have 3 or 4 drinks over the course of the evening, this pattern might seem quite moderate—and harmless. (It’s not. See How Much Alcohol is Healthy?)
We’re also notoriously unreliable when it comes to estimating our consumption patterns—especially when we over-consume something. People who drink to excess, for example, typically underestimate just how much they consume. And I don’t mean that they under-report it to others, in an effort to cover their excesses. They actually under-report it to themselves. The same pattern holds true for people who overeat. To make things worse, studies show that the more we tend to overdo something, the worse we are at estimating exactly how much of it we do. The more people overeat, the bigger the discrepancy between their actual consumption and what they remember or report consuming.
Do a Reality Check
In other words, it’s fairly easy—and very typical—for us to convince ourselves that we’re enjoying something in moderation when we’re really not. I have to confess to you that I thought my sugar consumption was reasonably "moderate," until I tracked it carefully for a couple of days. And keeping a log is the best defense I know against this particular brand of self-delusion. I don’t mean that you have to track everything you put in your mouth for the rest of your life. But keeping a diet diary for a few days can be amazingly revealing. Knowledge is power, they say, and self-knowledge may be one of the most powerful things of all.
See also: Mobile Apps That Can Make You Healthier
What’s the Definition of Moderate?
The next step is to establish some concrete limits for things you suspect it would be easy for you to overdo (whether that’s sugar or alcohol or fish fries). It’s one thing for me to say, Be sure to enjoy sweets in moderation. It’s another thing entirely to specify that you limit your intake of added sugars to less than 10% of your total calories. Having concrete, measurable limits helps us keep those self-delusions and slippery slopes in check.
In our online discussion, Lisa wrote “I think everyone knows fried foods are bad. That's the easy part. The more challenging part comes from deciding how much and how often we can incorporate unhealthy choices into our lives, in order to live a full and happy life, without affecting our general, long-term health.”
Lisa makes a great point. Whenever possible, I try to give you evidence-based or common sense guidelines, such as the one on added sugars. But just how much or how often you can afford to indulge your less-than-healthy desires is going to depend on a lot of individual factors, such as your age, current health status, and activity level. What’s OK for a 25-year-old marathon-runner is probably not going to be appropriate for a 50-year-old desk jockey who only breaks a sweat once a month, when he opens his 401K statement. If you’re having trouble managing your body weight, your blood pressure, or your blood sugar, for example, it may be an indication that your approach might be a little too relaxed.
To wrap up this discussion on the benefits—but also the potential pitfalls—of moderation, let me leave you with this comment posted by Olwen: “I'm a naturopathic nutritionist and every day I see people who are too lax with their diets, as well as people who become rigidly obsessive about their diets, and those who approach nutrition with a good sense of balance. The people who approach their nutrition with a sense of balance and moderation are the ones who are enjoying life the most.”
I couldn’t say it any better.
Keep in Touch
Have you ever struggled to strike a balance between being excessively rigid with your diet and being too lax? Have you found strategies that help you enjoy things in moderation—without feeling guilty or going overboard? I’d love to hear from you!
Post your comments and questions below or on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page.