Everything in Moderation: Balance, or Denial?
“I enjoy everything in moderation” – a well-meaning but cagey term that often really means:
“My nutrition is a mess… but I’m not really willing to give anything up.”
Flash forward to the good news: you don’t need to give anything up. At least, nothing that is not your volitional, independent choice.
The reality is that you can enjoy everything in moderation and still achieve or maintain the level of fitness that suits you, but there are a few specific skills that need to be developed. Especially as the holidays approach, it’s helpful to cultivate a few key tools that will help you be balanced, inclusive, but smart about your eating.
But first, let’s talk about palatability…
This is simply the phenomenon of tasty food. It happens in nature to a degree, but most hyper-palatable foods are engineered by humans. Hyper-palatable foods are very difficult to stop eating once you have started.
Often, it is the combination salt, fat, and/or sugar that makes something irresistible, and easy to overeat (or binge eat). Pastries, meats covered in sugary sauces (think Chinese takeout), and candied nuts are just a few examples.
However, palatable foods in general, even if they don’t contain overt sugar, make it difficult to locate your “off switch.” Pasta, cheese, bread, nuts, and bacon are easy to overeat.
These foods are highly rewarding, because we are biologically engineered to seek out and eat calorie-dense foods that stave off hunger. Low-calorie foods like broccoli, celery, and spinach do not light the same craving fire, for important biological reasons.
So when you feel like you can’t get your hand out of the cookie jar or the bag of chips, congratulations – you are behaving exactly as nature intended you to act. However, our misfortune is that this urge to overeat is now more likely to negatively affect our survival, rather than ensure it.
This is why moderation is so difficult. We are wired for famine in an environment of constant feast.
Moderation in a Hyper-Palatable World
The discussion of hyper-palatability is essential to the full picture of moderation, because our 21st-century reality is that moderation is very, very difficult.
Why? We make hundreds of small food choices each day carrying an outdated bias toward self-preservation, and most of the choices available are not broccoli, celery, and spinach. Most of the choices are bagels, fast food, and heavy coffee creations. Add onto our natural proclivity for highly rewarding foods the level of stress that most of us experience on a daily basis. Long commutes, fights with the boss, and power struggles with children break down our resistance to these highly tempting foods even more.
That is why “moderation” can be such a sketchy path. For many people, “I enjoy everything in moderation” can end up translating into: “I actually eat a lot of everything, all the time.”
So what are the three skills that you can use to follow moderation as a true north star, without getting caught in the avalanche of commercially tasty foods that are naturally tempting to overeat?
Start with Inclusion, Not Exclusion
Most people have an “exclusive” rather than “inclusive” model of nutrition. Exclusive eating is driven by avoiding or eliminating certain foods. Inclusive eating is motivated by including and incorporating specific foods.
If you start by eating well – plenty of lean protein, fiber-rich vegetables and starches, and fats from healthy sources, every 3-4 hours – you will be sufficiently satisfied that hyper-palatable foods are simply less tempting.
When you are hungry, under-nourished, and rushing from one caffeine-driven blood sugar spike to the next, you are set up for failure. Hyper-palatable foods are going to call your name, and it will be hard to resist.
But when you are basically satisfied, food (and the drive to seek it out) will not be at the surface of your thoughts, and it will be easier to shrug off the donuts in the office lounge. Make sure to eat breakfast mid-morning, and to eat every 3-4 hours all day, always including protein and trying to eat fruit and vegetables whenever possible.
Stop Eating When You’re Satisfied
This is perhaps the prime achievement of participants of my online coaching groups. They learn to eat more slowly, take their time, listen to their bodies, and stop when satisfied. When you are practicing “everything in moderation,” this only works for health and fitness goals if you can really listen to yourself and truly stop eating when you are satisfied.
With many hyper-palatable foods, the most real pleasure occurs in the first 1-2 bites. After that, there is a curve of diminishing returns, where the sense of enjoyment fades, even though it is difficult to stop eating.
A very simple physical action that you can take is to put down your fork between bites. We often become engaged in a plate-to-mouth wheel where your hand is bringing food to your mouth before you are finished chewing the previous bite. Stopping this process allows your sensations to catch up with you.
Then, if you are putting your fork down between bites, you can also take a pause halfway through the meal to take a beat and discern your level of fullness.
Keep in mind that there is a spectrum of hunger and fullness. You abruptly don’t cross a line from hunger into fullness with no warning. If you were to grade satisfaction on a scale from 0-10, you could say that 0 is completely famished, and 10 indicates fullness to the point of feeling sick. When you stop to discern your level of fullness, it’s your choice whether or not to keep eating. I am not here to say that a 4 or a 6 or an 8 is the “right” point to stop eating. I am simply saying that if you are consistently stopping at an 8-10 level at most meals, where you are stuffed to the point of being sick, you are not enjoying “everything in moderation.”
An 8-10 level is simply not moderation.
Identify what feels moderate for you, and learn to consistently take a breath and stop eating at that point.
If you have difficulty leaving food on your plate, remember:
- If the difficulty is because you feel – irrationally – that you must-eat-this-entire-muffin-because-this-is-the-best-muffin-ever-and-there-will-never-be-another-muffin-like-this-one etc. etc. etc… there will be more food later. You can have more. There are more muffins in the world.
- Or, if the difficulty is because you experience guilt about wasting food, you can also start proactively splitting with people, saving food for later, or other actions that will prevent waste and soothe your conscience, without overeating.
Reducing Opportunities for Overeating
In general, I encourage removing from your environment as many opportunities to overeat as possible, understanding your biological tendency to seek out and consume high-reward foods. Keep in mind it’s your biology working against you – it’s not your weak willpower. A way to work with your biology is to take advantage of your tendency to forget what’s not in plain sight.
You can set yourself up for success by making it easy and likely that you will make nutritious choices and reduce your consumption of high-reward, high-calorie foods rich in salt, fat, and sugar. Maybe this means not keeping as many tempting, indulgent foods in your home kitchen. Maybe this means that you get proactive at your place of work about changing the food culture so that pastries are not left out every day. Maybe this means you pack your own snacks so that you are practicing an inclusive, nutritious diet, instead of an exclusive, draining diet.
No matter what strategy you choose, the goal is to make it easy and simple, so that your willpower is not constantly fatigued.
Some form of moderation, rather than an extreme diet, is what leads most people to long-term weight loss success (including healthy weight maintenance). Furthermore, true moderation and fast results are not mutually exclusive.
You may decide that you do want to give certain foods up for good. That’s ok, too! But it has to be your choice, and invested with your own values. If you do Whole30 because it’s supposed to be the silver bullet but you don’t “fix” the underlying issues of your food environment and habits… it’s going to be an uphill struggle. But if you realize that sugar (or dairy, or whatever) doesn’t serve you and makes you feel bad… it’s totally ok to decide to abstain!
The exercise of moderation is an important skill to develop. So don’t let “moderation” become an excuse for overeating or living in denial about your diet. Instead, cultivate your moderation radar so that you can accurately sense when you are satisfied, use proactive planning and skills to prevent hunger and blood sugar crashes, and improve your eating environment so that healthy choices are easy, natural, and simple.
You don’t need to “give up” foods to lose weight. If you take the time to become better at moderation and be realistic about your eating, you can continue to enjoy all of your favorite foods, and even occasionally indulge, and still achieve/maintain the your goal weight.
You can do it!