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Moderation Is A Flawed Concept

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

I’m sure you all have heard the “everything in moderation” advice regurgitated by all the gurus — and most likely your grandmother.

But just because everyone spouts it off — doesn't’ mean it’s true, or even a helpful use of words. It does appear on the surface to be wise advice because anything extreme is crazy, right? But get this — this entire concept could be the very reason you can’t maintain or lose weight.

Moderation is an interesting idea in theory. The amount of people that think they are somehow superior because they believe they have mastered the art of moderation is astonishing. They believe that everyone that hasn't been able to moderate are just lazy and undisciplined.

Moderating has always been a slippery slope for me. I do well for awhile, but that little bit that was fine in the beginning always turns to excessive amounts. With everything and anything that feels good. I know I am not alone here.

Some humans indeed handle and thrive with more flexibility and variety in their diet— but not all of us can control the intake of hyperpalatable foods, no matter how much freedom we have. This is not a popular concept in the pop fitness and nutrition crowd — who will tell you that abstinence isn’t healthy, you just haven't done moderation right, or you are not desensitized to variety because you have been restricting too long.

But get this, abstinence is mental freedom to those of us who fail at moderation. Life is so much more peaceful when you work with yourself, rather than against.

Can't everyone just learn to control themselves?

That is far too simplistic and ignorant and I suggest you check yourself. Many people find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. There’s no right way or wrong way — you just need to find what works for your brain. If moderators try to abstain, they feel rebellious and usually end up binging. If abstainers attempt to be moderate, they spend an inordinate amount of time rationalizing why and how much they should eat.

Unlike most individuals in the health sphere, I do not see all restriction as being disordered or inherently bad. Believe it or not, I think a lack of restriction inevitably leads to an unhealthy weight and relationship with food in a subset of individuals.

No matter what category you fall in, most all humans have foods with no breaks. Meaning when they start they just can't stop... or it's incredibly difficult to stop. The foods that hit your pleasure centers hard will be completely different from what hits your best friend’s so there is no blanket recommendation. You probably don’t need to do much work here either. I am guessing your brain has already formed a list of unfuckwithable foods.

We all must take our individual physiology, personality, and lifestyle into consideration when we are deciding what moderation means to us and how we are going to define it.

Simply put: Know what you can fuck with.

Remember this — one persons moderation is another person's bender or restrictive diet. It's completely subjective. Moderation becomes an issue when you’re continuously doing something that is negatively impacting your life and you are having negative consequences attempting to moderate.

As for restriction, it only becomes an issue when you view your diet as all or nothing. Or start to isolate yourself due to your dietary restrictions. Or cause nutrient deficiencies and other health problems from excessive restriction. If you experience anxiety around food, that is also a good indication that you are not simply practicing discipline, and it has crossed into disordered territory.

Sidebar for all you fit or nutrition pros reiterating your favorite gurus verbiage: “the research says moderation is healthy", you need to check yourself for a second…

You’re essentially telling people they are somehow a flawed human because they have failed repeatedly at your definition of moderation.

Perspective shift → telling someone to eat unhealthy things in moderation is like telling someone what the best flavor of ice cream is. Okay, sure, that’s your favorite flavor. Stop assuming it is everyone’s favorite. Stop assuming everyone does well with moderation.

It’s an instruction that is vague as fuck and is fundamentally unhelpful.

Abstainers vs. Moderators

I am of the opinion that life would be a lot easier for most humans if they just made a damn decision to not wrestle with the beasts of desire on the daily. Constantly hitting your pleasure threshold and constantly providing substrates (whatever they are) numbs the hedonic threshold, and you inevitably create a hunger to maintain equilibrium.1 You create a desire by engaging in the moderation game. Simply put: by you tasting, you keep those neural circuits firing.2

People can be judgmental assholes on both sides of the fence. As an abstainer, you will get commentary like; “You aren’t being healthy and this is going to lead to an eating disorder. You are being extreme.” On the flip side, there are the abstainers who want to tell moderators, “Your problems are clearly because you want a hot body but aren't willing to give up the idea that moderating isn’t helping you reach your goals.”

With substance addiction it’s much easier to address, because everyone already accepts that abstaining is the only solution. But we have to eat so it isn't as easy to address.All humans use a variety of coping mechanisms, and food is the most utilized substance, because duh, we have to eat — and the social acceptability with the constant push for people to moderate in order not to be othered.

It’s easy to get on a moral high-horse here in either camp. But the truth is somewhere in between. I know my approach isn’t the only one and would feel like a life not worth living for some humans. Everyone must do this cost benefit analysis on their own. If you feel fine playing this game of russian roulette with food, than by all means do so. If you want to limit pleasure from food in your life, than by all means do so. What is the most important here is our own individual relationships with food. If you’re happy doing what you’re doing, my opinion is irrelevant.

Just keep in mind that the entire moderation concept plays a psychological trick on many people that leads to weight gain. In a study conducted on self regulation and the self control threshold theory — it was found that the more you like a food, the bigger your definition of a “moderate” serving size will be.3

To quote the lead author Michelle vanDellen, "The more you like a food, the more of it you think you can eat "in moderation.”

VanDellen doesn’t completely dismiss the concept of moderation; she did express a healthy dose of skepticism about the common backlash of dieting. Since we're not good at estimating portion sizes, or estimating how much we actually eat, she said following explicit guidelines may actually help if a person wants to continue eating "in moderation." Which is essentially a form of restriction.

There have been other studies on the idea of moderation and weight gain in certain individuals. There was a 2015 study with nearly 7,000 humans that found that food variety is linked to weight gain.4 It lead to an average 120% increase in waist circumference after five years. On the other hand those whom restricted themselves to mostly healthy foods had the best outcomes. This simply doesn’t support the everything in moderation concept for diet adherence or quality.

Addiction & Food

Is food addiction even a thing?

Addiction defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine:5

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Using this definition, you bet your ass you can be addicted to foods. Food addiction is similar to any other eating disorder in that it can cause us to have an unhealthy relationship with certain foods. Obese and overweight humans clearly display patterns of eating behavior that resemble the ways in which addicted individuals use drugs.6

There are two ways a food addiction can manifest:

  1. Hitting your reward pathways hard, commonly through being a hyperpalatable combo of sugar, fat, and salt.7,8

  2. Manifesting as a behavioral addiction, such as overeating on monotonous foods.

I’m sure you have all came across the idea that no one is addicted to sugar because no one eats sugar out of the bag. Bullshit. I have had clients do this very thing. I’ve also had clients binge on spray oils. Sounds insane to someone who has never struggled here, but I can assure you it isn’t as rare as many of you fit-pros preach. Anything — including the behavior of overeating uncommon foods — can become a source of addiction.9

It’s rarely about the substance of abuse. It has little to do with the taste or feel once the addiction has progressed and has more to do with acting out the compulsion. Addiction is a compulsion to act out something that negatively impacts your life. I do agree as a collective — it is more of an issue with hyperpalatable foods for most people. But I am not blind to the fact that there are people struggling with behavioral addiction.

While the fitness world is debating the validity of food addiction, studies have continued to show that alterations in food composition changes the behavioral response to consumption, in part due to sensory perception (flavor enhancers, sugars, sugar substitutes).9 On another note — in a subset of susceptible humans, high glycemic carbohydrates trigger addition-like neurochemical responses that mimic drug seeking behaviors.10

Which brings us all to the question:

So why do some of us become addicted and others don’t?

This is a layered issue, and the etiology of this will be different for each person struggling. Genetics, environment, lifestyle, and experiences usually factor in here. We are all damaged humans — addiction for anyone is really just trying to escape the pain of your life. If negative consequences stopped addiction there would be no addicts. Getting over-fat and the being diagnosed with disease states isn’t going to be enough.

For the individuals that moderation has failed — the best way to achieve true moderation is to undo the conditioning where you think you want to moderate.

I'll break that down for you — key here is that the road to moderation isn’t seeking moderation through sheer force; it’s when you step outside of the control game and step into the take it or leave it game. You take a break from the addictive behaviors to establish a true take it or leave it mentality. Then when you add things back in you can see if you can control the exposure to these foods that didn't work for you before. You will no longer have the compulsions, so you can assess the situation a little better.

Researchers at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy have a questionnaire to identify people with food addictions. Keep in mind that we all do some of this on occasion and addiction is defined as something that is repeatedly bringing negative consequences to the point of altering life quality.

Do you:

  • End up eating more than intended when you start eating?

  • Continue eating more than planned when eating certain foods?

  • Eat to the point of feeling sick, or stomach discomfort often?

  • Have anxiety when eating certain foods, or worry about not being able to eat them?

  • Go out of your way to obtain certain foods when they aren’t available, even if it’s illogical?

  • Eat certain foods in large quantities so often that you miss out on working, spending time with family, or doing recreational activities?

  • Avoid professional or social events where certain foods are available due to the fear of overeating?

  • Have a problem staying on task due to your obsession about food and eating?

The questionnaire also addresses the psychological withdrawal symptoms. For example, when you cut down on certain foods, do you have symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety

  • Agitation

  • Panic

Food Reward Simplified

Certain individuals do indeed have exaggerated dopaminergic and endorphin

responses to hyperpalatable foods, or the completion of addictive behaviors.11–13

Now, there are many things at play with food reward, but the two systems that I see as most important are our dopaminergic system and our endogenous opioid system. The melanocortin system is intertwined, playing a pivotal role in altering signalling in our dopaminergic system and driving addictive behaviors,14,15 but I will leave that one for a seperate time.

A little background here. Let's start with dopamine. Dopamine is made from an amino acid called tyrosine after being converted to L-Dopa. It’s one of the catecholamines, along with adrenaline and noradrenaline, which you can think of as fight or flight neurochemicals.16

We generally get the substrates to make dopamine from protein-containing foods, bananas, dark chocolate, and almonds. There are numerous dopaminergic pathways in our brain and is known to be the key driving factor in our motivation and reward seeking behaviors.17

Dopamine is the very reason people will drive to the store and buy a box of donuts to binge on the entire thing, when they have vowed never to do so again… But get this: It isn’t the follow-through that gets us that hit of dopamine we are seeking. Anticipation of reward gives us just as much satisfaction.18 This is something to keep in mind when redirecting behaviors. You don’t need to follow through with the behavior to get your favorite neurochemical hit.

An example of this would be when you’re having a strong craving for wine. You’re anxious as fuck on the way to the restaurant — but once you get there and order a glass, it’s like all the anxiety has been lifted. What is this sorcery? You haven't even drank it yet — so it’s not the alcohol impacting your physiology. Simply ordering the wine and anticipating the drink gave you a hit of dopamine. Pretty amazing, right?

This is a common misconception about dopamine. It isn’t a reward chemical so much as it is a motivation chemical.19 You want to feel the highs of dopamine? Then keep setting goals that you need to work towards, even if there is no clear-cut reward to accomplishing those goals. Dopamine is what encourages us to act — it is released in order to achieve a goal.19 When you order the wine, you feel accomplished — the wine itself is irrelevant.

Procrastination, self doubt, and loss of zest for life are all linked to low levels of dopamine. Some of us are genetically wired up to have altered dopaminergic response to stimuli for various reasons. I wont get into the complexities in this article and will keep it fairly simple here. Maybe at a later time I will address this topic in depth.

I have a special interest in this due to my own wiring. I have a set of genetic polymorphisms that contribute to me not clearing catecholamines and neurotransmitters well. This makes rigidity, intellectual tasks, obsessions, personal growth, and habit formation easy for me.20–22 Directed well, it can be an asset. Directed poorly, it can break me. It broke me more times than not when I was younger. But the application of knowledge is power, and awareness is the key to transformation.