Why "Everything in Moderation" Doesn't Work

A look at how this simplistic approach towards nutrition actually does more harm than good
Staff Writer

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This story first appeared on Greatist.com

Jonathan Ross—Everything in moderation—it seems like such a good idea. It “feels” right because it promotes the idea of a balanced approach to nutrition in a nice, neat, simple saying. But does it help us or hurt us?

Let’s look at the term moderation, which is defined as: restraint; avoidance of extremes or excesses; temperance. Is this really how most people act out moderation with nutrition?

For many people, moderation looks like this:

  • Day 1: A doughnut at the office
  • Day 2: A low-fat pastry with their “coffee” (meaning a couple shots of espresso in a heated milkshake of ingredients)
  • Day 3: Pizza night
  • Day 4: Cupcakes at the birthday party at the office
  • Day 5: A handful of chocolates from the candy dish
  • Day 6: A couple glasses of wine at a wine and cheese party
  • Day 7: Hot wings and a couple beers watching the game with friends

It’s been more than a week since this person had that doughnut, so those wings and beers a week later “feels” like moderation. But it isn’t. When you are eating something from the same category of non-health foods once day, it’s not a treat—it’s a habit. And your body is built on your habits. Having any type of junk food once a day isn’t moderation, it’s a lifestyle.

Superfoods and Supervillians

There’s this relatively modern concept of “superfoods,” but there’s really no such thing. For most of human history, food was just food. There have been no newly discovered foods that act like nutritional superheroes in our bodies. Yes, kale is healthy, but it is healthy in the standard ways our bodies expect and it's always been healthy. It hasn’t become “Kale the Superfood” in the last decade. Healthy food should be our normal. It’s not super; it is what is expected.

In contrast, on the junk-food side of things, there are countless new and sometimes very distorted freaky foods that act like “supervillains” in our bodies. There are no superheroes in the world of food—just a lot of very good but ordinary people, along with a number of supervillains. It takes a lot of work and time by a lot of good, ordinary people to fight the destruction caused by just a few supervillains. While everything in the ”healthy” category is normal, in the ”unhealthy” category, most foods have significant, powerful, deleterious effects that are not solved simply by eating healthy food at the next meal.

The major problem is that there are all kinds of weird “food” products (they might be edible, but they aren’t really food) with harmful chemicals, sugars, and fats that can disrupt your physiology. And the resulting dietary imbalances rapidly generate inflammation and a kind of hormonal static that can take weeks or months to clear.

If you eat healthfully most of the day, but have a treat each day, you’re actually creating an imbalance. And this leads to another problem.

I’ve Been Good, Now I Can Be Bad

When you feel like a saint, the idea of self-indulgence doesn’t feel wrong. It feels right—like you earned it. “Moral licensing” is a dangerous phenomenon. When you do something good, you feel good about yourself. This means you’re more likely to trust your impulses, which often means giving yourself permission to do something bad. If you tell yourself that you’re “good” when you eat healthfully and “bad” when you don’t, then you’re more likely to eat junk tomorrow if you ate good food today.

We need to stop self-judging our morals based on our food choices—it destroys our ability to have a healthy relationship with food. If you eat a healthful food, you are getting more healthful—you are neither a good nor bad person.

It's Not Just You
I have learned too much about how the brain and body work, and coached too many people over the years, to accept “everything in moderation” as a workable concept. Like any overly simplistic attempt to reduce a complex aspect of human physiology to a simple rule, it just does not work for the majority of people.

And the continued belief in outdated, ill-conceived concepts like this one results in massive psychological damage to people struggling to find health: If it’s so simple, yet elusive for you, there must be something wrong with you. The lack of progress can get internalized as a personal flaw when it is really a conceptual flaw arising from simplifying something that just isn’t that simple.

What it all boils down to: We need copious amounts of healthy food and a small amount of food with little to no value. Moderation as it is commonly used will result in moderately unhealthy people instead of thriving people.

The Takeaway
Each day we walk through a world that presents us with dozens or even hundreds of temptations and visual triggers for junk foods. We can’t escape seeing it and the constant visual stimuli can weaken our resolve. If we only eat an unhealthy food once instead of the other 99 times we’ve come across it every day, it may “feel” like moderation, but your physiology works the way it works. Consuming junk food daily—which is not moderate, by definition—erodes health and counteracts many of the other healthy choices (like exercising) you may be making on a regular basis.

This post is a guest post written by Jonathan Ross that originally appeared on ACEFitness.org. Named the 2010 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, Ross serves as ACE senior consultant for personal training.

More Reading:
What is the Alkaline Diet and Can it Help You Lose Weight?
Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Eat More Fat
Why Are so Many Americans Eating Gluten-Free?

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