Moderation is a dietitian’s favourite word. The media is filled with sensationalized headlines about the latest food that has been outed as a danger to our health (butter and red meat). This spurs a wave of confusion and concern, and many questions from steak and pastry lovers about how much they can safely consume without threatening their health. The answer to this question is hardly ever simple, and the word moderation is usually a part of it. The problem – it’s an extremely subjective term that’s not all that helpful in guiding the average person towards a healthy lifestyle change. Moderation is not a well defined term; it means different things to different people and it is ultimately based on a judgement call.
Restrictive diets, and most fad diets, operate based on a list of hard and fast rules. If you’re Paleo, you know that legumes, dairy, and grains are off limits. Three simple rules, easy to follow. If you’re a vegan, you don’t accidentally eat a beef burger. You’re clear on what rules define your diet; there is no grey area and no judgement call necessary. Although fad diets in particular don’t get much support from credentialed health and nutrition professionals due to their unnecessarily restrictive nature (rarely backed by sound science), there is a reason why so many people swear by them and get the results they are looking for. They don’t have to think. They just follow the rules.
Following the rules is substantially easier than constantly being faced with making a judgement call, and it also results in much greater consistency. Consistency is key when it comes to any lifestyle change. Could it be that these diets governed by rules are effective not because of the foods they choose to include or avoid, but because the rules are clear, simple, and objective?
Interestingly enough, studies have found that peoples’ perception of moderation is often connected to their current or desired consumption rather than viewing moderation as an objective standard. So basically, if you’re having a mad craving for chocolate chip cookies, your definition of moderation when you pull the box of cookies out of the cupboard is likely going to equal more cookies than what you might consider a moderate serving when you’re not experiencing a craving. Additionally, people are likely to compare their own consumption to the consumption of those around them, as well as their social networks to cue their definition of moderation. So the eating habits of those around us may have a substantial influence on our own personal definition of moderation. Overall, participants defined moderate consumption as greater than their personal consumption.
So, next time you hear the phrase “all foods can fit within a healthy diet if consumed in moderation” and roll your eyes, know that we don’t always have exact guidelines or hard and fast rules for what a healthy amount of a given food is. It’s also near impossible to come up with a standard list of what moderate amounts of ‘unhealthy foods’ would be, since this amount would vary drastically based on individual lifestyles and circumstances! Nonetheless, I think the dietetic profession needs to pick a new favourite word or phrase (maybe all the nuances of moderation can’t be summed up in just one word?) that will better resonate with people who are trying to change their lifestyle. When giving nutrition advice, using the word moderation is not an effective way of defining what will help someone move towards their goals, and what will set them back.
Let me know what you think of this controversial word in the comments below, or maybe even suggest another phrase that you think is up to the job of replacing the word moderation altogether!