3 Limitations To Moderation
"Everything in moderation" is the rallying cry for the processed junk food industry. Advertising and PR campaigns assure us that as long as its part of a "balanced diet," junk foods can be enjoyed in moderation, because, after all, there are no "bad" foods.
To be fair, there is a need to communicate to people that there are no "bad foods" and that moderation is key, but it must all be kept in the proper context. The reality is that there are many people who become obsessive about food quality to the point of it bordering on disordered eating. That is a serious problem, and it is a disordered eating pattern. These people have to understand that certain foods in moderation will not harm them.
Aside from disordered eating patterns, we need to have a conversation about moderation. We see three glaring limitations to the idea of "everything in moderation."
1) Nobody can give a definition of "moderation."
If you are prescribed an antibiotic the Doctor and pharmacist will give you instructions to take 1 pill 1-2 times per day for "X" amount of days, until the prescription bottle is empty. That is a clear definition of moderation. There are set limits, set parameters, and an end date..
When it comes to eating, what is the definition of moderation? It is estimated that the average American consumes 3000-3600 calories per day with a macronutrient breakdown of 65% carbs, 20% fat, and 15% protein, where do we begin to define moderation? Do we look at moderation in terms of calories? Carbs? Fat? Protein? Is there a standard definition of moderation that we can apply from one person to the next? Moderation for one person may be one piece of cake at a birthday party 2-3 times per year. Moderation for another person may mean eating just one piece of cake every day. Both are examples of moderation and both are incredibly subjective. Without an objective definition of what moderation actually is, we're left with subjective interpretations. These subjective interpretations of moderation get us into a lot of trouble, especially when we consider the ubiquity of garbage food (more on that later).
2) Eating has largely become an unconscious activity.
Have you ever walked through your kitchen and randomly reached into a bowl of trail mix and eaten a handful of it without thinking? Or maybe while bored at work you've pulled out a few hershey's kisses and eaten them? Maybe you were busy all day and neglected to eat much food throughout the day which led to a rumbling stomach and a trip to a drive through on the way home? You're not alone.
I'm not a psychologist and I won't pretend to be an expert in this area, but food serves as a pacification and reward system for many of us, and it likely has been since childhood. When we're bored we eat, when were stressed we eat, when we feel any sort of hunger pang we crave high calorie foods laden with salt sugar and fat. These are all unconscious cravings which we develop through life. Let's face it, when we were kids food was a means to pacify and reward us. Wanna keep kids quiet on a long road trip? Give them some food. A good performance at a baseball game was rewarded with an ice cream cone. Every week we see fussy kids in the office promised a reward of McDonalds if they behave in the office. This system of reward built around foods leads to cravings and "addictions" later on in life. Yes, I know the word addiction sounds alarmist, but there is a lot of validity in that term when it comes to food.
Since eating is a largely unconscious activity, it makes quantifying moderation even more difficult. A trip to the pantry here, a handful of trail mix there, maybe a fun sized snickers bar, and then a trip to a restaurant where we always tend to underestimate calories consumed all adds up throughout the course of the day. Trying to eat moderate amounts of food is challenging when we're not cognizant of the amounts of food we're eating on a daily basis.
3) Nearly every food in the standard American diet is garbage, so what exactly do we moderate?
This is where the rubber meets the road in "moderation." "experts" in the media (usually spokespeople for the food industry) are very good at telling us that their foods are fine in "moderation." What this approach doesn't account for is the ubiquity of garbage food in the standard American diet. Once again, I know the term "garbage food" sounds alarmist, but let's call it what it is. Most foods you see in grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants are garbage. Even Whole Foods and Trader Joes are chock full of organic junk food. (Just because something is "natural," "organic," or "plant based" doesn't mean it's good for you.....I'm looking at you "beyond meat" and "impossible burgers").
Throughout the course of any given week, someone may find themselves eating a single donut, numerous handfuls of chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant, maybe some bagels, a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and for good measure lets toss in a fun night with some friends enjoying some beer and wine. Each of these examples represent "moderation." A single donut is not bad for you. A single handful of trail mix is not bad for you. A glass of wine or two at night is not bad for you. However, when you put all of those moderate amounts of food into a single day or week moderation has gone out the window and next thing you know you have consumed nearly a thousand more calories than you had considered. This takes us back to our first point in this post. How do we define moderation? Sure a single bowl of ice cream each week is an example of moderation. But what if that moderate amount of ice cream is part of a day that also had a moderate serving of a snickers bar, doritos, Chipotle, and peanut butter. Moderate amounts of fat, sugar, and extra calories can add up quickly.
How do we regain control of moderation? It begins by developing a consciousness of what we are eating. The first step is to download the "my fitness pal" app or any other food tracker. For a period of 3-7 days, I recommend weighing, measuring, and tracking EVERYTHING you consume that has calories. The keys to success in this exercise are honesty and accuracy. Nobody is going to see the results except for you. Live your normal life and eat the way you normally would but measure everything you eat and put it into the app. This means weighing your cereal you eat in the morning, getting an accurate measurement of just how many potato chips were in those three handfuls you ate, weighing the donut or bagel you had at work. Yes, it can be annoying, and not 100% accurate, but the idea of the exercise is just to get an idea of what you're actually eating and drinking. Consciousness is the first step to success.