Everything in Moderation? Why This Dietitian Disagrees

Eating in moderation | Everything in moderation | Balanced Nutrition

“Everything in moderation”.

You hear it everywhere. On the internet, in the healthcare system, and (previously) from my very own mouth. I used to use the phrase “eating everything in moderation” quite frequently during my counseling visits.

But, I’m here to share why I no longer agree with this statement.

Before you make an immediate judgment, I hope you will first read through my explanation!

First, what does moderation even mean?

Donuts - what does moderation mean?

Technically, the definition of moderation is “the avoidance of excess or extremes”.

But when it comes to eating in moderation, the concept is completely subjective.

What moderation means to me may be completely different to what it means to you, your mom, or the barista at the coffee shop.

Here are a few examples:

  • The 80/20 guideline. Eating nutrient dense foods 80% of the time, and indulging on so-called “unhealthy” foods 20% of the time.
  • Eating the same ratio of healthy foods to unhealthy foods. Everything is equal.
  • Enjoying a donut every now and then.
  • Enjoying 6 donuts (this is my husband’s version).

Then, you have the concept of everything in moderation. In counseling hundreds of patients, I began to realize that many of us were distorting this statement.

For example, one may infer that only eating some vegetables was just fine. (Of course, some is better than none, but in terms of nutrient density vegetables far outweigh sweets and processed foods. So, they shouldn’t be grouped together.)

See what I mean?

This is the number one reason why I no longer agree with it as a health recommendation.

It is too vague. And, in my professional opinion – it isn’t that helpful.

There isn’t much research to support “everything in moderation”.

Eating in moderation has never clearly been defined, thus little is known about its actual impact on our health.

It has become like one of those statements that just keeps getting repeated – without any science to back it up.

For me, it used to be my way out of an awkward conversation.

Them: “Oh you’re a dietitian? Does that mean you, like, never eat pizza or cookies?”. 

Me: “Oh no I do, everything in moderation ya know!” ??‍♀️

Or awkward scenario #2:

Patient with type 2 diabetes: “So, I can still eat candy and pie, right?” (it was always about the pie)

Me: “Well sure, everything in moderation!”

Thinking back to these scenarios make me cringe. That statement has very little scientific evidence behind it! Should I have told my patient to NEVER EVER eat pie or candy?

No.

But, before I explain further…

Let’s take a quick look at the research around “moderation”:

Balanced nutrition? Pic of soda


2015 Study via Plos One (2)

Researchers assessed the diet of 5,160 people.

Diet diversity – aka “eating in moderation” was associated with poorer diet quality and a 120% increase in waist circumference.

Study concludes: These results do not support the notion that “eating everything in moderation” leads to greater diet quality or better metabolic health.

PS – Weight in and of ITSELF is not the best measure of health. But, increased weight gain around the abdominal area (visceral fat) HAS been independently linked to many chronic diseases (3,4, 5).

 

2016 Study in Appetite (6)

Researchers did a series of experiments to determine how people define “moderate consumption”.

They found that definitions of moderation varied widely, depending on the individual.

Study concludes: The endorsement of moderation messages allows for a wide range of interpretations of moderate consumption. Thus, we conclude that moderation messages are unlikely to be effective messages for helping people maintain or lose weight.

 

2010 Study in the American Journal of Epidemiology (7)

Researchers followed 43,580 people for about 10 years.

Drinking soda two times per week or more was (independently) associated with a 42% increased risk of diabetes.

Study concludes: Public health and practitioner efforts to reduce the consumption of nutritionally poor soft drinks and certain juices, especially with increased marketing and consumption patterns across the globe, may help to prevent type 2 diabetes.

One would probably label drinking a soda two times per week as “moderation”, right? And besides, the Corn Refiner’s Association does SAY that high fructose corn syrup is healthy in *moderation*. So it must be true.

(Hope you are picking up on the sarcasm, here).


I won’t bore you with all of the research, but you get the general consensus: “everything in moderation” is not an evidence-based recommendation.

If not eating in moderation, what does the research support?

Balanced Nutrition, picture of veggies

Nutrition research is hard. Like really freaking hard for lots of reasons that we won’t go into right now. There is some research that supports certain diets (read my take on the Ketogenic Diet and Paleo Diet). But, you can find different research that shows conflicting data for those very same diets.

In the end, most research points to these main factors regarding a healthy diet that will nourish the body and reduce disease risk:

  • Eating a lot of plants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, etc).
  • Lowering our intake of added sugars (soda, baked goods, candy etc.).
  • Eating less processed food and refined grains.
  • Avoiding restrictive diets and yo-yo dieting (it may be harmful and backfire).
  • There is no one “best diet” for everyone.
  • Higher diet quality leads to less chronic diseases (8).

Related post: Blue Zone Diet: 9 Secrets of the Healthiest People in the World

There are foods that nourish your body. And foods that nourish your soul.

You may be thinking “ok, so you’re basically a fun-sucker that no one wants to eat around”. ? No! Please hear me out.

For instance, I had pizza and wine for dinner the night before I wrote this post.

But, if we’re getting technical, pizza and wine are not “in moderation” with the rest of my usual eating patterns.  My diet (meaning the foods I eat, not an actual DIET) mostly contains wholesome foods that nourish my body and help me feel great.

You probably have a general idea of what foods nourish your body. Some people find that what nourishes their body may be different from others. For example, some people with certain conditions may feel better when they eliminate grains from their diet. Others may feel best when they eliminate or reduce animal proteins.

Then, there are foods that nourish your soul. These are the foods that have nostalgic value, that support community, culture, and just…regular life.

  • Glass(es) of red wine for a girl’s night.
  • Grandma’s 70-year old chocolate cake recipe.
  • Chips and salsa while watching your favorite football team.
  • Pizza for Friday dinner because you literally-cannot-even, anymore.

The Take Home Message

As a registered dietitian, it is my professional responsibility to share and breakdown the science of how to best fuel our bodies and minds.

“Eating everything in moderation” is not backed by science, and it may not be health promoting. My fear is that this statement is too subjective. It also allows food companies to use “moderation” to their advantage. Anyone remember that TV commercial from the Corn Refiner’s Association about high fructose corn syrup?…

Try to veer away from thinking of health as “eating in moderation” and instead focus on primarily eating the foods that nourish your body. Here a few other take-home messages:

  • You shouldn’t eat vegetables in moderation. You should eat A LOT of them (5+ servings per day is the goal).
  • Listen to your internal hunger and fullness cues to guide when and how much you eat (this takes practice).
  • Avoid extreme or restrictive diets (unless medically necessary).
  • Eat foods that nourish your body the majority of the time.
  • But, enjoy the foods that nourish your soul on occasion, too.

Most of what we eat should come from unprocessed, whole foods. The rest? That’s where we give ourselves some grace, enjoy moments that nourish our soul, and listen intuitively to what our body *actually* needs.

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