It goes like this: I’m sitting in my office, which happens to be on the ground level of a supermarket. Someone walks by with something, shall we say, less than nutritious in hand: a package of cookies, a pint or quart of ice cream, or perhaps a slice of pizza, hot from our store’s kitchen. They lift it up with a shrug and a smile and out come those magic words: “Everything in moderation, right?”
And I cringe. Every. Single. Time.
It’s not that they’re wrong, really. Sure, I could argue that some things, be them food or activities, are best avoided entirely, but for the most part, a little bit of just about anything won’t kill you. In fact, the key to achieving most health goals is working small amounts of less nutritious choices in here and there.
Some people call it cheating, but it’s more accurately just another part of life. Balance. Few and far between are the people who are genuinely content to live the rest of their lives without another bite of brownie or burger (or insert-another-much-beloved-“junk”-food-here). Most of us are going to eat these foods sometimes, and thinking that you’re bad or you’ve cheated for doing so only leads to guilt, shame, and future deprivation. No, that won’t do, either.
Enter the “everything in moderation” tagline, which at its core emphasizes the importance of filling our diets with as many nutrient-dense foods as possible and enjoying the less nutrient-dense ones–you guessed it–in moderation. By practicing a mindful, all-foods-fit approach to diet and overall wellness (of which, mind you, I am a huge fan), there’s no guilt or shame, which creates a way of eating that is more fulfilling and satisfying in the long run. I’m all for this!
So why, then, am I not shouting this oft-touted phrase from the proverbial rooftops?
1. What the heck does “moderation” mean, anyway? Is having a square of chocolate every day “moderation?” What if, instead of a little bit every day, you sat down with five bars in one sitting once a month? Is that moderation? Is a slice of loaded sausage and pepperoni deep dish pizza with extra cheese once a week more or less “moderate” than a slice of plain thin crust every day? We say the words “everything in moderation” all the time, but how often do we stop to think about what it even means?
2. No one ever smiles, shrugs, and exclaims, “everything in moderation!” between bites of kale salad. It’s only ever used as a rationalization for choosing something notoriously devoid of nutrition, and I hear it used way too often for the majority of those instances to truly be “in moderation.” I know this sounds harsh, but think about it. When was the last time you said “everything in moderation”? How were you feeling at the time? What were you about to eat? I’ll bet it wasn’t a feeling of confidence and a fresh apple.
The phrase, which could stand for all things balanced and fulfilling, becomes riddled with the same guilty undertones that come with the restrictive diets it claims to defy. “I don’t want you to think I always eat like this,” is what you’re really saying. “I’m insecure about my choice,” is what I hear. You don’t need my approval, or anyone else’s, before you eat. Take the time to learn about solid nutrition and explore your own relationship with food so that you can select whatever is right for you, as an individual, in that moment. No guilt. No self-consciousness. No rationalization necessary.
No one can really define moderation for you; it’s something that will evolve with you over time. As a dietitian, I can surely give you a few recommendations: Limit added sugar to less than 6 teaspoons (or about 24 grams) a day; have no more than one or two drinks daily; aim for five servings of veggies and at least one or two servings of fruit; stick to two or three servings of red meat a month but try for one or two servings of fish every week. These ideals, these recommendations, are solid benchmarks, but some or all of them might feel extreme as a first step for you as an individual. Moderation, for you, might mean limiting added sugar to less than 12 teaspoons a day or cutting red meat back from every day to three times a week. Start there, but never stop challenging yourself and your definition of what “everything in moderation” truly means.
What does moderation mean to you?