Moderation: Does it work?

This week in various social media and live outlets I’ve come across health professionals dismissing the idea of moderation for various reasons. In general, the idea of “Everything in Moderation” often gets a bad rap. However, I believe that there are ways to make it work for most of us, and in the long term has been shown to give better results.

Firstly, What do people mean when they say “Everything in Moderation”? Does it mean you can eat everything as long as you only eat small amounts? Truth is, it has very different meanings for different people. This is actually, part of the problem. Without a proper definition, it’s easy to take it apart from all ends.

Personally, I interpret its meaning to be that you can eat anything, in small amounts, that all foods can fit into a healthy diet. So maybe it should be “anything” in moderation which essentially is the idea of 80/20 or 90/10.

However, even so, there are many health advocates who see this as a very very bad idea, and while it can be for some (as I’ll explain later), for others it can be just what they need to help them achieve their long-term health goals.

There are several arguments that have been circulating for awhile now as to why this idea of 80/20 is a bad idea. The big ones generally revolve around the idea of food addiction and food toxicity. They go along the lines of;

If you eat a small amount of something “unhealthy” while eating a certain way, you’re going to crave it more and/or you won't be able to stop once you start. And so, like drugs or alcohol we shouldn’t have even a little bit if we’re trying to quit.

The second analogy often thrown around is that your body is like a car, put a little bit of diesel in petrol and you won't perform as well. So you shouldn’t put even a little bit of ‘bad’ foods in your body. This is the idea that foods are toxic even in small amounts and we need to avoid them at all costs.

I believe that moderation can work in most cases and want to share with you how it can work and when it doesn’t, or you need to proceed with caution. But firstly, let’s look at the arguments.

The first argument is all about your thinking around certain foods. The anti-moderation movement believes that you should completely abstain from ‘said’ food because if you start you won't be able to stop. Not just the anti’s but many of us also believe this about our own selves.

Firstly, listen to your thoughts. Do these thoughts around food create a self-fulfilling prophecy? Our thoughts are very powerful drivers to our behaviours. In theory, our thoughts become our feelings which then create an action and then the results be it desired or not. So, for example, if you tell yourself that if you eat something you won't be able to stop, not only are you giving yourself permission to do so but you’re also setting yourself up for negative feelings towards yourself which can then lead to overeating followed by more shame and guilt. This then leads to many people giving up altogether.

Start paying attention to your thoughts around food. Are they rational, are they true? For example, has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve stopped eating ‘said’ food? Chances are there has been and so really, your thoughts are not even a truth. Don’t set yourself up for disaster by predicting your own outcome before it even happens.

In some cases, addictions around food are not an addiction to the foods themselves but the idea of not being able to have them. A powerful thing happens when you give yourself undeniable permission to eat anything you want when you really, really, really, really want it. I’ve heard this called the “4-really rule”. Firstly, by stopping and asking yourself if you do really really really really want it you can make a conscious decision to do so or not. Often, food will begin to lose its appeal when it’s no longer a “forbidden pleasure”. The more we tell ourselves that a food is bad, or a treat or a guilty pleasure, the more that food is going to appeal to us. Give yourself permission to have these foods when you really do want them and in my own personal experience and those of my clients, the cravings diminish. If sugar was so addictive in itself, we’d all be walking around sucking on sugar cubes, but we’re not. It’s the experience that keeps us coming back for more.

Restrictive ways of eating have been proven time and time again to not work in the long run. That’s why 99% of diets fail. The more restrictive it is, the less likely you are to succeed, and that’s not your fault, that’s the diet’s fault. In one particular study, they had two groups of people on a similar low-calorie diet. The only difference was that one group was allowed to have bread on occasion. The group that was allowed the bread had the most success, while the other group experienced much less. This study and others like it have concluded that rigidity around food is correlated with LESS weight loss, LESS weight loss maintained, higher BMI, depression, binging, poor body image and more focus on food.

Allowing for certain foods you love, in a structured way, time and time again have shown to lead to better results overall.

Ok, so now let’s look at the argument that certain foods are “toxic” that even a small amount will lead to sickness or poor health. Many health and fitness professionals use the analogy of a car. They tell us our bodies are a fine tuned _____________ (insert favourite sports car here). They say, you wouldn’t put diesel fuel into a petrol car, and so we shouldn’t put ‘unhealthy’ foods into our body EVER.

Rubbish. This makes me cross to be frank. Our bodies are so much more complex than even the fanciest of cars.

“Human bodies aren’t combustion engines. They’re complex, dynamic, organic, and infinitely sensitive systems.” – Precision Nutrition

This way of thinking is setting us up for trouble down the road, for the reasons outlined above amongst others. Sure we want to nurture our bodies, we want to eat nutrient dense foods. But eating the occasional Moro bar is not going to send our health flying into an irreversible tailspin. There is more evidence to tell us that that the occasional bit of ‘soul food’ is better in the long run then there is to tell us that strict rules and black and white thinking around food are the way to go.

Black and white thinking, goes along with rigidity which again leads to a poor relationship with food, poor body image and a plethora of other negatives for many people. It can cause unwanted stress on our body, can impede our ability to absorb nutrients, and can lead to binge eating and other distorted behaviours around food. No food should ever make you feel guilty. Period. You can regret a decision, sure, and use that as a learning experience but guilt and shame have no place in the kitchen.

Don’t eat this food just because you’re allowed, eat it because it makes your soul sing. Eat it if it makes you feel good. If it doesn’t feel good, why bother? I don’t advocate treat days. I don’t think we should eat Moro bars or drink diet cokes because we ‘deserve it’ or because a plan told us to or because it’s “treat” or “cheat” day” I think we should simply save these things for those times when we genuinely want it. If that’s never, that’s fine, I personally don’t really want diet coke or Moro bars. But if I did, I would totally have one every once in awhile and know that it is not doing me lifetime damage to have it once in awhile.

Dr. Libby always says “It’s not what you do sometimes that matters, it’s what you do most of the time.” Even the health professionals behind the What The Fat books advocate allowing for these less nutrient dense foods every once in awhile once you’ve done some experimentation and helped your body become fat adapted.


Are there some cases when the anti-moderation movement holds some truth?

Sure! When you have a serious allergy of course. If you have an allergy to peanuts, I wouldn’t recommend you to have the occasional peanut or some bread if you’re Celiac. Also, if a certain food generally makes you feel awful, where’s the joy in that? I don’t eat a lot of bread because it makes me feel yuck – I don’t feel deprived because I’m not having it, I just don't want to spend the day feeling terrible.

Also, there are some cases where moderation can be problematic. Potentially, when you haven’t yet worked out what the underlying issues that are triggering your need for comfort. As I don't believe that the food itself addictive but the feeling of comfort is. We all want to feel a little bit of joy when things are bad. We need to find out what’s driving our need to eat when we’re not hungry. In many cases ‘undeniable permission’ is enough, but in others, you may need some support with this, and that’s why I’m here.

So what should we do?

We should first take care of ourselves, respect ourselves and love ourselves if we can. This takes time but begin to see health as a place of nurture rather than self-loathing. We can then crowd in foods that make us feel amazing physically and then enjoy some of those “soul foods”, whatever they may be, when we really really really really want them. What if that’s never? What if we never want a Moro bar or diet coke? Great, don’t have them. But if you do, you really really really really really do, have it. Enjoy it. Be grateful and move on. By doing so you’re likely to achieve health for the long term.

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