For those looking to lose weight and get healthier, there is certainly no shortage of dietary advice. Thousands of experts share their tips to “get bikini-ready by summer!” and “lose those last 10 pounds!” in magazines, newspaper articles, television programs, and website advertisements.
While much of their advice is totally conflicting (“Eat breakfast to control your appetite!” “Skip breakfast and lose weight!”), there are some pieces of dietary advice that everyone seems to agree on. Today, we’ll touch on one of our favorites—a concept you’ll hear everyone talk about, yet is feasible for just about nobody:
“Everything in Moderation .”
This is perhaps the most famous piece of diet advice ever given—everything in moderation. Depriving yourself leads to willpower depletion and the dreaded “rebound effect.” Unhealthy foods are only unhealthy if you eat them in excess. Balance is key. Therefore, you can (and should) eat anything you want… as long as you eat it in moderation.
The problem is, moderation works for very few people. You know this to be true. You’ve tried it countless times. (And if it actually worked for you long-term, you wouldn’t need any more diet advice, would you?)
Moderate for Health?
The most obvious caveat against “everything in moderation” is for those suffering from a health condition affected by the foods you eat (which, P.S., is every health condition). In the case of autoimmune disease, Celiac, or general food sensitivities, the very idea of moderation may just be keeping you from achieving optimal health. If certain foods are acutely inflammatory in your body—wheat, dairy, artificial sweeteners—then even a “moderate” amount of these foods will keep you sick. That one small pancake on the weekend (or one piece of pizza at the office party, or one packet of Splenda in your A.M. coffee) may be the difference between feeling bad and feeling awesome long-term.
For folks with specific sensitivities or health conditions, eating inflammatory trigger foods “in moderation” is a terrible idea—yet popular magazines will suggest it’s far worse to “deprive yourself” than to avoid entire foods or food groups altogether. We ask, what’s worse… giving up bread altogether, or dealing with energy dips, sleep interruptions, mood swings, skin breakouts, GI distress, a resurgence of pain, and other health consequences of your “moderate” indulgence?
As an analogy, if you were allergic to peanuts, would you still feel the pressure to enjoy them “in moderation?” Of course not!
So why are you even attempting “moderation” of bread, cheese, or diet sodas if these foods make you significantly and tangibly less healthy?
Willpower vs. Foods With No Brakes
For those who don’t have a health condition or food sensitivities, you may feel even more pressure (or desire) to “moderate” instead of deprive yourself—but there are perils associated with this dietary concept for you, too. The biggest problem with moderation is that it relies on willpower. And given what we know about willpower, and the kinds of foods that are tempting us day in and day out, “everything in moderation” is a long-term losing proposition.
We spend, on average, 3-4 hours a day resisting desires. We only have one finite tank for willpower, and any number of actions (avoiding Facebook during the workday, biting back an angry retort at your co-worker, being patient with your kids, saying “no thank you” to the offered candy) rely on the same willpower tank. We use more willpower in today’s modern world than we ever have before… no wonder it’s in such short supply.
Combine this with the kinds of foods we are attempting to moderate— “foods with no brakes*.” These are calorie-dense, carb-dense, nutrient-poor foods designed by food scientists to make you crave them, without any of the nutrition or satiety factors that tells your brain to stop eating them. They rewire pleasure, reward, and emotion circuitry in your brain, creating habit loops that are near impossible to break with sheer willpower. Stress—any kind of stress—makes these cravings and habits stronger. And the kicker? These same foods also mess with hormones like leptin and insulin, creating metabolic imbalances that further promote cravings and hunger such that no amount of willpower can overrule them. (Hormones > Willpower.)
So… you’ve got an airy concept (“moderation”). You’ve got scientifically-designed foods that have rewired your brain to make you crave them, promising pleasure and comfort when you eat them, without nutrition or satiety factors to make you stop eating them. You’ve got hormones running amok, thanks to the damage caused by your overconsumption of these foods-with-no-brakes. And you’ve got a rapidly depleted willpower bank that runs out faster than ever, thanks to the endless temptations created by our modern lives.
Relying on willpower alone to somehow eat fewer of those less healthy foods is a battle you are destined to lose… which makes “everything in moderation” a poor long-term strategy.
*Refer to our New York Times bestselling book It Starts With Food for more details on this concept.
In addition, the very concept of “moderation” is intangible—so fluffy as to be meaningless. Does it mean you only eat one cookie at a time, or cookies once a week, or just one bite of cookie a few times a day? The truth is, most of us haven’t take the time to map out exactly, specifically what “moderation” means to us. Even if we did, the “moderation” would probably creep when it suited our needs. (It’s easy to justify that second glass of wine when the bottle is open and you hate to waste it.)
We also like to negotiate with ourselves when we’ve set less-than-firm goals… “I’ll have two glasses tonight, but none tomorrow.” But what happens tomorrow? We are creatures of instant gratification, quickly discounting future benefits in favor of immediate payoff—which means tomorrow usually finds us justifying that one glass of wine yet again.
Habit research shows that black-and-white goals—without any room for interpretation, justification, or negotiation—are far easier to meet than squishy goals. “I will eat less sugar”, “I will exercise more”, “Everything in moderation”… all examples of squishy goals with loads of room for us to bend them to our will and desire.
“Moderation” leaves us far too much wiggle-room… and we’ll fill that room with what gratifies us today, despite the consequences tomorrow.
The Moderation Solution
Now, if you’re one of those folks for which “moderation” works just fine, then you’re lucky. (And you’re probably not trolling the internet looking for diet advice, or reading this article looking for guidance.) But for the vast majority of folks, it’s time to ditch the concept of moderation once and for all. Now, we’re not saying you have to be a 100% perfect eater, day in and day out. We just want you to reframe how you enjoy less healthy foods.
- Do a Whole30, at least once (preferably more than once). Learn for yourself which foods negatively affect your health, quality of life, or physical performance so significantly, they are never worth the “indulgence.” Change your tastes, break your cravings, lose your dependence on foods with no brakes.
- After your Whole30, make the decision to always avoid those foods that you believe significantly impact your health or quality of life. Believe this is not deprivation—it’s the smartest choice you can make for a happy, healthy life.
- Follow our Guide to Nutritional Off-Roading when making an off-plan (less healthy) food choice. Even if you don’t use the actual guide, go through the steps of asking yourself, “Do I really want this? Is it worth it? Can I choose something less bad and still be satisfied?”
- Eat as little as you have to, as infrequently as you can, to satisfy that desire. Understand that the less you eat, and the less often you choose to indulge, the healthier you will be. Some weeks, you may not eat these less healthy foods at all. Other weeks, you may eat them every day. Both are okay, as long as you are making a conscious, deliberate, honest-with-yourself decision each and every time you choose to indulge.
So the next time you hear someone say, “Everything in moderation,” feel free to smile, nod politely, and immediately toss that piece of dietary advice right out the window. You know better—and thanks to your new strategy for indulging in less healthy foods, you can look, move, and live better, too.
Have you struggled with “everything in moderation,” or are you one of the lucky few who can live comfortably in the gray area? Share your thoughts in comments.