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.