All In Moderation: Three Reasons Why It Doesn't Work

One of the biggest pieces of mainstream nutritional advice is "all in moderation" or "it's all about balance". We tout moderation and balance as if they're the cure to our health woes and if you could just get yourself under control, just eat a little bit less you will be fine. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work like that. Here's why.


1. We can't self-moderate. A study released last spring shows that people tend to define "moderation" by their terms and not a smaller set amount. The more a person favored the particular food they consumed, the more they justified their intake and reported they ate a moderate amount, even if they overconsumed. So while health and nutrition professionals tout "everything in moderation", we're leaving out what that actually means, and setting the public up for failure.

"The message to ‘eat unhealthy foods in moderation’ provides a standard for eating behavior, but based on our supported hypotheses, we suggest that this message is a poor standard. First, the message is ambiguous, allowing people to broadly interpret what is moderate onsumption (Leone et al., 2007). Second, as shown in Study 3, whendefining moderation, people look to their own consumption and tend to rate moderate consumption as greater than their own consumption. In this way, definitions of moderation may play a self-serving role in justifying both chronic overconsumption and temporary indulgences. If, as we show, the concept of moderation is poorly understood and subject to potential self-serving biases in perception, moderation messages may do little to reduce caloric intake and may actually result in increased food consumption."

2. Moderated junk is still junk. Our nation is completely hooked on sugar, which we know affects the brain the same way some drugs do, and yet we continue to tell you to enjoy it in moderation. For the same reason I wouldn't tell an alcoholic to consume their vice in "moderation", I wouldn't tell someone who is addicted to sugar to enjoy "just a little bit", yet we continue to because breaking up with sugar is thought of as too hard. Sugar is still sugar, a doughnut is still a doughnut, and brownies are still brownies, even when consumed sometimes and not all the time. When we consume processed and refined carbohydrates and sugar, our body still gets hit with the gut disruption, the blood sugar spike and drop, and if you have food intolerances, you'll still get the reaction; even more importantly, you're still feeding your brain's addiction to sugarWe are under the impression that a little junk is NOT JUNK. Unfortunately, it is, and it still affects your body, and mind, in the same way.

3. You're an abstainer. In Gretchen Rubin's book, she talks about two types of people: moderators and abstainers. Moderators tend to not do well with the "never" approach and instead lessen their desire for something if they can have small amounts of it every so often. Conversely, abstainers do well with the all-or-nothing approach. If it's off the table, it's off the table. I'm an abstainer. I'd rather go completely without than battle the back and forth thought process of "do I need this?", "how much should I have?", "when can I have this again and still be 'moderate'"? The opposite is true of my husband, who is a great moderator. He can have one or two cookies and not care for any more for an extended amount of time. When I asked him what makes him a moderator he said, "Once I satisfy the craving, I don't need to continue satisfying it even if it's something I really like". Once he has the reward his brain is seeking, it no longer continues asking. I don't believe abstainers or moderators are more or less healthy than each other, but instead need to find how their tendency works for them to achieve health. For both moderators and abstainers, it's still important to eventually diminish chronic consumption of processed carbohydrates and refined sugars - the less we consume, the less we'll want, and the healthier we will be long-term.

"Research - and my own experience - suggests that the less we indulge in something, the less we want it. When we believe that a craving will remain unsatisfied, it may diminish; cravings are more provoked by the possibility than by the denial." - Better Than Before by Gretchen Ruben.

When we finally accept that "all in moderation" isn't the best dietary advice we can give, it empowers us to seek out what truly makes us healthy and pour our efforts and determination to that. What do you think? Are you moderator or abstainer? How do you view "all in moderation"? I'd love your thoughts!

Be well,